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Voices of Recovery is a compilation of articles that were published in the ‘Coping With’ column of the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal from the years 2000 to 2008 and photographs from PhotoVoice projects at the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation (CFPR), Boston University. PhotoVoice is a technique where a photographer elucidates the personal meanings in the photograph through a short narrative text. The book is edited by Sue McNamara of the CFPR and gives “voice” to the often untold stories of those living with serious mental illnesses. The articles and photographs are grouped by themes into six chapters (Recovery; Increasing Knowledge and Control; Managing Life's Stresses; Enhancing Personal Meaning; Building Personal Support; Setting Personal Goals). The articles provide interesting and at times, poignant accounts of the authors’ recovery journey from the period before the first encounter with a serious mental illness to the book’s present time. The adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, rings true with the photographs in the book and the complementary narratives help the reader appreciate each one through the eyes of the photographer. Together, the articles and photographs tell stories that are as varied as the people telling them and they lead the reader through the often convoluted and perilous road of recovery.
The diversity of thoughts and perspectives is perhaps the book’s principal strength. We find in this anthology that there are just as many personal definitions of mental illness and recovery as there are authors. By presenting an abundance of perspectives it challenges the reader’s notions of what is to be mentally ill, the established methods for treating mental illness and society’s relationship to those experiencing it. Yet, one common thread in all the articles is the stigma and discrimination experienced by the authors and in its attempts to dispel this it is similar to another anthology, Beyond Crazy: A Journey Through Mental Illness (Nunes J, Simmie S (eds), 2002). However, Voices of Recovery differs from this anthology in providing exclusively first person accounts of living with mental illness and of recovery. Also, each story in Voices of Recovery provides a positive take on recovery and instils hope that recovery is more than just a distant possibility. Interestingly, despite a general disdain for the “medical model” expressed through out the book, some authors reflect on the solace and hope they found in their diagnosis. For example, one of the articles expounds on the author’s freedom from his self imposed and stigmatized label of “crazy” or “mental patient” upon learning that his experiences were part of a “neuro-chemical imbalance”. Although, there are many invaluable lessons and wisdom to be obtained from the articles, the recurring message is that there is no one way to recovery, but rather a unique and ongoing recovery of self identity, skills, strengths, hope and dreams.
One of the strengths of the anthology is that it allows the reader to see themselves in some of the characters in the stories: the consumer of mental health services, the friend, the family member, the peer or the professional. As a result, it allows for reflection on the reader’s own beliefs and biases. One article that stood out in this regard is titled “Open Doors” in which the author tells us of the time he decided to fight his loneliness by becoming a self-appointed door man at a large departmental store. He explains his struggles with doing this task consistently over a substantial period of time and describes how it eventually improved his self-esteem and gave him the strength to seek out paid employment. This story triggered an exploration of our own views which, despite our purported person-oriented approaches to mental illness, may have caused us to discourage the author’s pursuit of this idea if he were our family member, friend or a client to whom we provide rehabilitation services.
One criticism of the book may be that although the articles are varied they do not include stories from various ethno-cultural backgrounds. For example, the chapter theme of spirituality and faith reflect only a Christian perspective. Although it is likely that the ultimate message of resilience and solace gained through faith would be the same regardless of the particular religious background of the author, it may have been more appealing to a wider audience if it had incorporated stories from other cultures, such as Latino and aboriginal populations which are particularly common in North America. Also, the chapter titles are perhaps misleading in that they may not reflect all the predominant themes in the articles within them. The articles often touch on all six chapters themes, to various degrees, while also addressing other themes such as “hope” and “belonging”. Furthermore, the titles suggest that the chapters may have a “how to” approach towards recovery while in reality these are narrative accounts. The writing appears to follow a predictable format of introduction, timeline and conclusions and this may be due to the fact that these were initially published in a scientific journal. This predictability appears to limit the authors’ creativity in presenting their stories and thoughts. On the other hand, the photographs are less constrained and therefore allow for a greater array of viewpoints and topics.
Overall, Voices of Recovery is a treasure of inspiring stories of redemption. They speak of the resilience of the human spirit and ability of people to find a way back to wellness. They give hope to those struggling with mental illness and remind those who want to help that being supportive and accepting can help in facilitating the process of recovery. We learn through this book people living with mental illness are no different than anyone else. They make mistakes, can learn from them, and although faced with overwhelming disability, obstacles and prejudices can survive and thrive once again. It is through such candid retelling of their experiences with mental illness that they push our boundaries, dispel preconceptions and tear down stereotypes. The stories challenge preconceived notions and dispel stigma by telling the reader that mental illness can affect anyone in any walk of life. It is a refreshing read for anyone for anyone who has any connection with mental health or mental health services.
© 2010 Christian Daboud and Priya Subramanian
Link: Voices of Recovery is available here.
Christian Daboud: Patient Council, Patients’ Council Facilitator, Regional Mental Health Care London, 850, Highbury Avenue, London, ON N6A 3H1, Email: Christian.Daboud@sjhc.london.on.ca;
Mr. Daboud is a Counselling Psychologist and Art Therapist serving as a facilitator for a consumer/survivor advocacy group working towards improvements in care and quality of life for patients at Regional Mental Health Care, a tertiary mental health centre in London, Ontario. He obtained his Master of Education in Counselling Psychology and Art Therapy Diploma from the University of Western Ontario. Having come to Canada as a refugee in his adolescence accompanied by his family, Mr. Daboud has focused his learning and career objectives around helping marginalized populations. He spent over eight years helping develop and disseminate a community based diabetes self-management and prevention program targeting at-risk ethno-cultural populations. Through this work, he learned about the power of participatory research and collaborative work amongst health care disciplines and those they serve. The model of care developed through this project won him and collaborators several awards such as the Peter F. Drucker Award for Canadian Non-profit Innovation. In mental health care, Mr. Daboud is committed to helping consumers advocate for more recovery orientated care. His passion for music and the arts keeps his grounded in his efforts to serve his community.
Priya Subramanian: Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Western Ontario, 850, Highbury Avenue, London, ON N6A 3H1, Email: Priya.Subramanian@sjhc.london.on.ca (Corresponding author)
Dr. Subramanian is a psychiatrist and a certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner (CPRP) providing services at Regional Mental Health Care, a tertiary mental health center in London, Ontario. She obtained her undergraduate medical degree from Annamalai University, India and completed her residency training in psychiatry from Bristol and Stoke-on-Trent, United Kingdom. She subsequently completed a clinical and research fellowship in Psychosocial Rehabilitation (PSR) at the University of Western Ontario (UWO), London. Throughout her training Dr. Subramanian has been mentored by psychiatrists with excellent clinical skills and person-oriented approaches to mental health care. During her undergraduate training, she was a recipient of many prizes including some for sports and creative writing, and received the university’s Silver Medal in Community Medicine. During her postgraduate training, she served as a resident representative and received prizes for research and service evaluation projects. She received a Trainee Award from the Department of Psychiatry, UWO in recognition of her work during her fellowship. Dr. Subramanian’s clinical interest is the treatment and rehabilitation of individuals with severe psychiatric disabilities. Her research interests are in the areas of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) and PSR. Outside of her medical career, Dr. Subramanian enjoys reading, running and playing ‘superheroes and monsters’ with her young son and his many toy-friends.