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June 10, 2013
Pebbles, Potholes, and Perspective
Empowerment: The Third Pillar of Psychiatric Recovery
by Sarah Hancock

So far we’ve covered the first two pillars of psychiatric recovery. Hope, the first pillar, develops when people recognize that recovery is possible. Choice and accountability, the second pillar, allows people to recognize they can make decisions in their lives that can help them progress on the recovery road.

Empowerment is the third pillar of psychiatric recovery. Once a person recognizes that society (doctors, loved ones, friends and acquaintances) can’t bring about recovery for him, he can take back that power for himself. Until he realizes the power he has (stemming from his choices) he won’t recognize he has the power to do anything. However, once he recognizes his personal strength, he will feel empowered to take the recovery reigns.

So how does one help someone take those recovery reins? It’s actually quite simple. As you apply it regularly in your own life, it will become second nature in your interactions with others. In short, build others. When you interact with someone searching for the recovery reigns, pay attention to him — validate and reinforce his efforts!

I don’t care how big or minuscule you perceive those efforts. Validate, validate, validate! Point out his progress. Pick out specifics. For example, “I noticed that you took an extra effort to comb your hair. It looks great.” Or, “It looks like you are trying hard to maintain your composure — that means a lot to me.”

As a person hears validation for the efforts he is making, he will gradually learn to validate himself. Soon he will become more capable of finding his own strengths and abilities. Talk about empowering!

Being a good, active listener is vital to helping someone who’s working towards recovery. Being an active listener means that you have put away all electronic devices and remove any other potential distractions. Pay attention both to what the person is saying and how he says it. Looking at his body language and listening to his tone will help you know if you need to ask any other questions to better understand what he is really saying.

Being a good listener also means that you have to suspend judgment. Wait until he’s explained what is going on before you jump in with comments. Don’t offer solutions unless he asks you for one. If you feel you have an amazing solution, you can say something like, “May I offer a solution?” If he says no, respect his decision.

We may have a tendency to want to do to or for the people we are trying to help. But, if we give into this tendency, we inadvertently take the power for ourselves instead of giving it to the person. This may make us feel strong and competent, but it doesn’t help the person experiencetheir own power, which is exactly what they need to do to begin the recovery journey” (Peer Employment Training Workbook, p.29).

Okay, back to griping those recovery reins. It is vital to “roll with resistance.” According to Motivational Interviewing, a theory utilized in helping people with psychiatric disorders, resistance signals that the person is trying to get his power back. If you roll with the resistance, you will be more likely to help the person recognize that he really does have the power.

Focusing on empowerment, one thing that I found interesting was the concept that the person with the illness is the expert of living with that illness. That just seemed odd. In my personal journey with my illness, I’d been constantly looking to experts for solutions. More often than not, those solutions just didn’t work for me, which left me feeling powerless and hopeless.

When I realized that no one else lives with exactly my circumstances (even if we have the same diagnosis and the same symptoms), I understood that my situation is unique. That pushed me forward to explore and learn the most I could about my own illness and possible compensatory measures. I have to find what works best for me, and you have to find what works best for you.

The last portion of empowerment is learning how to become a self-advocate. This is difficult, especially if the concept of self advocacy is new. However, because I am the expert at my own life, no one else knows what I need except for me. I had to stop giving away my power and remember that I have the power to explore possibilities and settle on what makes the most sense to me. For me, personal empowerment meant embracing who I am now and striving to become who I was meant to become.

To feel true empowerment, a person with a mental illness must feel validated for his efforts, feel listened to by others who suspend judgment, have a support system in place that rolls with resistance, have others who recognize the person with the diagnosis is his own expert and learn how to become a self advocate.

Doing so allows me and countless others to take the recovery reins and progress on Recovery Road.

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