Defining Recovery: From Mental Health Consumer to Policymaker

Paolo del Vecchio, M.S.W.
Director, Center for Mental Health Services
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)

delvecchioWe recover in community. In community, we share stories and spread hope. And in community, we raise our voices so all may have the opportunity for recovery.

For more than 40 years, I have been involved in behavioral health as a consumer, family member, provider, advocate, and now policymaker.

The thread throughout my journey has been opportunity and hope. Over the years, I’ve learned that it is community that provides opportunity, and it is in community that we find hope.

I am pleased to participate in this forum to share stories of recovery and spread the message that recovery is not only possible, it is the expected outcome of services, supports, and treatment. Together, through our shared experiences and with our collective voice, we can change the conversation on mental health and increase awareness of the possibility of recovery.

My Recovery Story

My own story is deeply rooted in the healing power of community. I experienced mental illness early in my childhood.

As a child, I experienced trauma by witnessing domestic violence and alcoholism in the family. As a result, I became withdrawn, depressed and anxious. And, I was alone.

Compounding this, I was bullied on an almost daily basis in school. As a teenager, I turned to alcohol and substances to manage my pain and isolation. Like many others, the full weight of my anguish hit home when I was a young adult, and I reached a breaking point.

One day, I found myself standing on the edge of the subway tracks, saw the light coming, felt the roar of the train approaching, and was ready to take that step. I was without hope, without support, without community.

The thought of what my death might do to my family pulled me back. I chose to seek help at the counseling services at my college, but was turned away and advised to come back in a month.

I didn’t have a month, but while I was there, I saw a sign that changed my life—it was a sign on the door for a work/study job to staff an informational and referral warm line and I immediately signed up.

I began to speak with and work with others who shared my experience—my peers. I found my salvation when I found my peers. I learned that I wasn’t alone in dealing with these issues, and I found that when we help other people, we help ourselves.

Today, as the first, self-identified, mental health consumer to lead the nation’s mental health services agency, I’m living proof that recovery from mental health problems is possible. For myself and many others, the belief that recovery is real provides the essential and motivating message of a better future.

What is recovery?

SAMHSA has identified recovery as a process of change through which individuals work to improve their own health and well-being, live a self-directed life, and strive to achieve their full potential. (Read more: Recovery is Possible.)

Recovery is holistic, person-driven, and occurs through many pathways. It is based on choice, supported by peers and allies through relationships and social networks, and includes traditional treatment along with other complementary supports and services. Recovery builds on individual, family, and community strengths and responsibilities. It is characterized by four pillars:

  • Health—pursuit and management of health, emotional health, and wellbeing, including abstinence for those with addictions
  • Home—a stable and safe place to live
  • Purpose—a meaningful and full life that includes a job, education, and resources to participate in society
  • Community—relationships and social networks that provide support, friendship, love, and hope

Most importantly of all, recovery is based on hope—the recognition and belief that people are able to overcome the challenges and obstacles that confront them to live happy, full lives in our communities. Recovery is now the expected outcome for all behavioral health services and is the guiding philosophy in the treatment and support for addictions and mental illnesses in the 21st century.

Stay Tuned

Visit CFYM tomorrow for more from Paolo del Vecchio, including thoughts on how health reform affects opportunities for recovery, what stands between Americans and recovery in the current mental health system, and what we can do about it.

What supports have you relied on to guide your own recovery? Have some of the four pillars of recovery been easier to access than others?


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