Identity is simply ‘who we are’. It comes from many things – what we do, what we are interested in, our beliefs, our relationships and our experiences. People who have received a mental health diagnosis can start to believe that this is the most significant part of their identity. The attitudes, behaviour and language of people around them – friends, family, health professionals – can cause individuals to believe that everything in their life is defined and determined by their diagnosis. This is simply not true; human beings are complex and all have incredibly interesting, diverse and important parts to our identity.

‘We are unique, and we are irreplaceable’ – Eleanor Longden

You do not have to feel boxed in or labelled by diagnoses or by what others think of you. You have the right to re-define and re-name your experiences for yourself in your own language. This can often help in reclaiming your identity.

Recovery College students have described identity as:

“Lots of different things to different people, depends on how others see you and how you see yourself”

“Cultural background and upbringing, what you believe and where you’re from”

“Intrinsic personality”

“Me. All the hundreds of different things that make me an individual”

“Identity is like a stained glass window. It’s made up of thousands of tiny pieces which together form a meaningful image. If someone only ever focuses on one or two bits of glass they’re never going to see the whole picture of who a person is”

It is very important to make sure that your identity is preserved and celebrated. Everyone has strengths, qualities and characteristics that others will admire and connect with – past achievements, knowledge, personality traits, interests, values, beliefs, hobbies and skills – the list is endless. Try making a bubble chart or list of the various parts of your identity, you could include some of the points suggested above and add as many other elements as you choose. If you felt comfortable doing so, you could also ask a trusted friend or family member to contribute.

What strengthens our identity? Recovery College student contributions:

“Knowing that mental health does not define who you are as a person”

“Trying new things and taking on new roles”

“Learning more about my diagnosis, what choices and rights I have and being able to take more control over my own wellbeing”

“When mental health professionals treat you like a person and not just a patient or a set of symptoms”

“Peer support has been really helpful in helping me to re-discover myself and helped me feel more confident in myself”

“Spending more time with people who treat you with respect and don’t judge you”

“Using my experiences of mental health to help and inform other people”

Real life experience

Having an identity is one of the things which make you human; makes you an individual. Identities are formed from a range of different factors which influence your life, including but certainly not limited to, your personality, your family, your lifestyle, your interests, your career, your likes and dislikes.

A person’s identity can and will no doubt alter slightly throughout their life, for example, right now something which makes up my identity is the fact that I am a daughter, however five years from now I may also be a mother!  The weighting of aspects of your identity can also change, for example, at the moment a big part of my identity is my love for travel, however, as I mentioned, if I do become a mother in five years’ time, no doubt this aspect of me might have to take a back seat for a while, and my role in my family may become a more prominent part of my identity.  For the most part, you are able to define your own identity by the way you chose to live your life, but some parts of your identity you have less control over.

Another part of my identity is my mental health diagnosis and throughout my life the weighting of this factor in my identity will also change. There have been times, when I have been unwell, that I have felt like my diagnosis was my identity, especially at times where my illness became all consuming.  However, I know that when I am well, this is not, and should never be the case.

When I am unwell, my identity outside of my diagnosis is something which I need to cling on to and use this to give me the hope of getting back on track to recovery. This can be very difficult, and I have found that sometimes I have needed my friends and family to remind me of my identity and who I am as a person outside of my illness to help me to see clearly.

I have found that during times as an inpatient maintaining your identity can be particularly difficult, you are seen first and foremost as a patient and therefore it is difficult for you to find those other parts of yourself when the majority of people address your mental illness first. This is why, I have been given so much hope from staff members who know that I have an illness, but take an interest in the other parts of me, who ask about my likes and dislikes, make conversation with me about my hobbies or my job; who see that I do have an identity outside of my illness.

Recognising my identity as a whole, reminds me that I am so much more than my diagnosis and gives me the drive to reclaim my identity and my life in recovery.