Thriving after recovering from a mental health problem

By Professor Mike Slade, Professor of Recovery and Wellbeing, University of Nottingham

Mental Health Awareness Week is a useful chance for us all to ponder a key question: are we surviving or thriving? This question is probably one of the very few that crosses time and space intact.

Two millennia ago, Greek thinkers wrestled with what makes for human flourishing. For the Stoics, 'virtue' (roughly, 'a meaningful life well lived') was the key. Aristotle thought this was insufficient and that health, wealth and beauty were also involved. He identified three types of good life: a life of pleasure (which has come to be called a hedonic life), a life of political activity (I’m not sure this holds so true nowadays!) and a philosophical life (focused on meaning).

Coming to the here and now, in the last decade or two this question has been revisited. The academic discipline of positive psychology explicitly focuses on how individuals and groups can flourish. Perhaps the most well-known positive psychology researcher, Martin Seligman, argues that a good life involves a combination of Positive emotions, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishments: the PERMA framework. From an interdisciplinary perspective, the global Foresight work on mental capital identified five-a-day for wellbeing: connect, be active, take notice, learn, give.

What has all this got to do with mental health? Our research is showing that this challenge of living well is just as important to people living with mental health problems as to anyone else. A systematic review of what is involved in ‘recovery’ (living a meaningful and satisfying life beyond illness) identified the CHIME Framework – connectedness, hope, identity, meaning and empowerment.

So the importance of positive relationships, good feelings about oneself and one’s future, and life having meaning emerge independently from wellbeing research (involving people without mental health problems) and recovery research (involving people living with mental health problems). A 2017 book called Wellbeing, Recovery and Mental Health brought together international experts to explore these links between recovery and wellbeing.

Most people know Bill Anthony as the person who developed the definition of recovery which is widely cited in policy and research internationally. Less well known is that he also put forward the transcendent principle of personhood, which states that 'people with severe mental illness are people' – in other words, seeing commonality is more helpful than seeing difference.

One implication is that approaches which are becoming widely used to support a flourishing life, such as mindfulness, forgiveness and gratitude, may be just as relevant as treatments to someone living with mental health problems. Our 2017 book Positive Psychotherapy for Psychosis takes many of these positive psychology approaches and applies them to people living with psychosis.

Change happens when communities form. Our Refocus on Recovery 2017 international conference will bring together international experts and delegates from over 20 countries in Nottingham this September. We will be tackling big themes about recovery – what it means for different groups, engaging with culture and community, preventing mental ill-health and how money is spent.

We’re also running en expert workshop, holding a mad celebration event, and running a demonstration day visiting clinical services. The goal is to deepen our understanding about thriving, wellbeing and recovery. Perhaps we’ll see you there?