What is personal recovery?

Personal recovery is used to describe the process of building a meaningful and satisfying life, with or without ongoing difficulties/symptoms. This is different to what is meant by clinical recovery, which refers to the point where symptoms have gone, for example, a person will have recovered from a cold when they stop coughing and sneezing.

Personal recovery is felt to be much more relevant when we are thinking about mental health and distress, as often it is not the diagnosed symptoms that are the most troubling thing for people. They may wish to have a greater sense of purpose, an understanding of their distress or more control over what happens to them.

Although reducing symptoms or certain feelings by using things like medication and therapy is very important and useful for many people, personal recovery goes way beyond treatment. Everyone’s ideas about their own recovery will be different, and this is why it can be difficult to describe exactly what recovery is.

A lot of research has been done to help to describe what personal recovery is, and from this, some key themes have been found. These are things that are important for all humans – connectedness, hope, identity, meaning and empowerment (see separate links for each of these).

Personal recovery is often seen as a journey. People set goals, discover new things, make new relationships and gain control over their lives. Because recovery is not about ‘cure’, it may not be anything to do with returning to how a person once was.

Supporters can be really important, and have a massive part to play in being hopeful, encouraging and not imposing their ideas of ‘what is right’ for the person. Mental health services should work with the person to support them towards their goals.

Real life experience

Personal recovery is about reaching a stage in your life where you feel that you are able to live well in spite of your illness or diagnosis. You don’t necessarily have to be clinically recovered and symptom free to have achieved personal recovery.  Personal recovery is unique to the individual and people may feel they have reached this at different times.  For example, for some people, if they are able to carry out their every life tasks unaided and live independently they may feel that they have reached their personal recovery.  For other people, personal recovery may involve more abstract ideas such as being able to feel better about themselves, feeling in control of their life and making decisions independently about their future.  The criteria for personal recovery can only be agreed by the individual, while it might help to discuss this with professionals, friends and family, the ultimate decision maker is you.

After my first hospitalisation and episode of psychosis I was determined that the milestone I wanted to achieve for personal recovery was that from the outside I appeared just like any of my other friends. I didn’t want my diagnosis to hinder the opportunities which I could have in the future and was determined that I would work, go on holidays, socialise and maintain the relationships I had developed prior to my illness.  I was told by some professionals that perhaps this was setting my personal recovery goal too high and I should reconsider, but it was my recovery and I knew what I had to achieve to make me feel satisfied that I was living a fulfilling life, it just might take me longer than others to reach my recovery.

Four years later, I am proud to say that I have reached my personal recovery. Bipolar disorder is still a part of my life but it no longer defines my life.  I am able to manage my illness in a way that I can also be in recovery.