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Rediscovering Yourself in Recovery From Mental Illness

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The Boston University Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation in Massachusetts is a research, training, and service organization dedicated to improving the lives of people who have psychiatric disabilities. The Center improves the effectiveness of people, programs, and service systems through strategies based on the core values of recovery and rehabilitation. Cheryl Gagne speaks to her work as a practitioner, as well as a woman in recovery.

Initially, Cheryl’s interest in returning to school for her graduate degree led her to Dr. William Anthony, who many consider to be “the father” of psychiatric rehabilitation. Dr. Anthony’s approach to helping people appealed to Gagne. She admired his sensitivity towards others who live with psychiatric disabilities; helping them identify and achieve their personal goals through learning skills and gathering supports made sense to Gagne. She was admitted with a full scholarship and, through the process of learning to help others, discovered she was able to apply these values to manage her own mental illness.

As part of an internship, Gagne worked with people who lived with serious mental illnesses to help them set their goals. She was hired to work at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation full-time, where she practiced clinical service, conducted research, and trained practitioners and people in recovery. Despite her own hospitalizations, Gagne never felt disparity, discrimination, or that her colleagues thought she was less than; she was always welcomed back.

Psychiatric rehabilitation is different from other models of care because it examines the skills and supports a person needs to achieve their goals. “When people have lived with mental illness for a while, they may not have goals that they can put into words,” Gagne said. Practitioners help to pose the questions: “What are my hopes and dreams?” “How can I achieve my goals?” In psychiatric rehabilitation, medication is seen as one of many possible supports if it helps a person function in the way that he or she wants to function in a role that he or she has chosen.

While definitions of recovery vary according to people and organizations, Gagne sees recovery as a person’s rediscovery of how they can have a meaningful and purposeful life, despite possible ongoing struggles with symptoms and social exclusion. “For me, recovery has not meant that I stop struggling with symptoms. I do experience symptoms. I cannot wish them away, but at the same time I don’t feel hopeless,” said Gagne. She has learned which coping mechanisms have helped her in the past and is able to apply them in the present. She does not see “dependency” as a dirty word because she has learned through personal experience that dependence helps her function more independently.

While she recognizes that social exclusion exists, Gagne does not like the word and has found she is able to address the concept and lessen its power by educating others. She speaks to social exclusion and acknowledges that it is present, however, she recognizes that “people do not want to see that it is there.” For Gagne, internalized oppression is the most difficult to handle. “Calling myself names because I have a mental illness perpetuates a sense of shame because I have a mental illness. I really need the support of other people to help me recover from that, someone who knows me, and sees beyond what I am seeing in a difficult moment.”

Everyone must have someone who believes in him or her, especially if they have been struggling for a long time. Social connectedness is essential. The process of reconnecting with family and forging new connections can reveal a higher purpose and meaning. It can show people that, at the core, beyond mental illness, they are humans worthy of respect and dignity. Boston University’s Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation has taught Gagne how to help others find a higher sense of purpose, which has empowered her to help others through her work.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources, including resources on social inclusion.

Last Updated

Last Updated: 04/19/2016