Nar­ra­tives of hope in men­tal ill­ness

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Lifestyle - Learn more about Grow, whose slo­gan is: “You alone can do it, but you can’t do it alone”, at

As a self-con­fessed pes­simist, I of­ten shy away from hope. I don’t mean that I am sunk in de­spair – I have no right to be: I’ve had a charmed life, free of the hor­rid things that hap­pen to peo­ple.

But I ap­proach hope with cau­tion. For in­stance, I tend to look on the fu­ture (whether next week or the rest of my life) as a sort of snake that could bite me with poi­soned fangs un­less I han­dle it care­fully.

Some­where in my head, I be­lieve that if I get car­ried away by hope, the snake will strike.

Which is a pity be­cause hope is an im­por­tant el­e­ment of men­tal health. This has been brought home to me again by read­ing Nar­ra­tives of Re­cov­ery from Men­tal Ill­ness by Mike Watts and Agnes Higgins. The book is based on the ex­pe­ri­ences of 26 mem­bers of Grow in which peo­ple sup­port each other to move from the dis­tress of men­tal ill­ness to a state of flour­ish­ing.

Grow is an in­ter­na­tional body which has been work­ing in Ire­land for decades.

Its mem­bers be­lieve full re­cov­ery with the help of one’s peers is a nor­mal hu­man process. Hope is a pow­er­ful in­gre­di­ent in this process.

If so, hope is an at­ti­tude to cul­ti­vate in all our lives re­gard­less of whether we, or any­one else, de­fines us as hav­ing a men­tal ill­ness.

Those who ex­pe­ri­enced hope and re­cov­ery through Grow in­clude Richard, deal­ing with the pain of “an unwanted and dev­as­tat­ing mar­riage sep­a­ra­tion” and Claire, who lost her grand­son and then her son to sui­cide.

Mak­ing progress

Though he cried when he tried to speak at Grow meet­ings, Richard could see that other peo­ple were mak­ing progress by fo­cus­ing on one is­sue at a time “and this was great, rather than be­ing over­whelmed by every­thing”. Even­tu­ally, he says,“I found that my own moun­tains slowly be­came mole­hills and life be­came man­age­able.”

In fact, he now says, his wife did him a favour by end­ing the mar­riage. “I wouldn’t be able to put up with her nowa­days, not at all. I’m a very dif­fer­ent per­son now, you know.”

Claire heard an in­ter­view on the ra­dio with an­other woman who had lost her 16-year old son to sui­cide and who had started a youth sui­cide-pre­ven­tion cam­paign. She got in touch with her. Later, as Claire told her own story on lo­cal ra­dio, “a com­mu­nity be­gan to grow around her”. To­day she and the woman whose story had spurred her on are work­ing hard in the hope of re­duc­ing sui­cide among young Ir­ish men.

The book’s au­thors write that hope, “gave each per­son per­mis­sion to al­low the emer­gence of new and ex­cit­ing thoughts about them­selves and their fu­ture”. What brought them back to the Grow group, week af­ter week, was “the pos­si­bil­ity of things be­ing bet­ter”.

Mike Watts has worked in the area of re­cov­ery for more than 30 years and is a for­mer mem­ber of the Men­tal Health Com­mis­sion. He has been in­volved with Grow since 1976. Agnes Higgins is a for­mer men­tal health nurse and now Pro­fes­sor in Men­tal Health at the School of Nurs­ing and Mid­wifery, TCD.

And what about me and my at­ti­tude of sus­pi­cion to­wards hope? Read­ing these sto­ries it strikes me that I have, in­deed, been hope­ful in my own way. Each turn I have de­lib­er­ately taken in my life has in­volved new and ex­cit­ing thoughts about the fu­ture. That’s a prod­uct of hope.

Grow’s mem­bers be­lieve full re­cov­ery with the help of one’s peers is a nor­mal hu­man process. Hope is a pow­er­ful in­gre­di­ent in this process

Mu­tual help

Each life-change has also in­volved sup­port from many other peo­ple. Mu­tual help is very much part of a healthy men­tal health process as out­lined in the book.

In­stead of go­ing around declar­ing my­self to be a pes­simist per­haps I should be more open to cul­ti­vat­ing hope as a de­lib­er­ate at­ti­tude.

I am also, though, a per­son who doesn’t like to move too far, too fast.

So per­haps, for now, I will move (cau­tiously) from be­ing a pes­simist to be­ing a hope­ful pes­simist.

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