Decades of research have found that hope is an important factor in mental health recovery. It makes sense since it is difficult to force yourself to put in the work toward a goal if you don’t believe it is possible. This includes the goal of improving mental health. When people are struggling to gain control over mental illness, they need to believe that their efforts will improve their quality of life.
What Hope Does to the Brain
Hope is an internal belief that triggers chemical reactions in the brain. It releases endorphins, the “feel-good” chemicals, which help to lower stress levels and increase productivity.
The Difference Between Hope and Optimism
It is not uncommon for people to use hope and optimism interchangeably, but the two are different in important ways. Optimism is the belief that, generally, more good things than bad will happen. Hope is the belief that a person can impact what happens in their life in a good way. Believing that it is possible to make things better, even in some small way, allows a person to increase their overall hope for improvement. Both optimism and hope can support long-term mental health recovery by allowing a person to believe that things can and will get better with effort.
Hopeful But Realistic
Although hope is important, the expectations it produces need to be proportional to what is possible. If a person’s hopes are not realistic, then they can become disappointed and discouraged when they do not achieve a good result.
For someone struggling with serious mental health concerns, this might mean starting with measurable, attainable goals, like decreasing their hospital stays or attending all of their therapy appointments. Over time, the goals can gradually become bigger, as their coping skills, medications, and other resources allow. It is helpful to be able to say, “Just because it isn’t happening today does not mean it will never happen.”
Although hope is an internal motivator, family, friends, providers, and others can assist an individual in increasing their hope. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has identified four factors that can give people reason for hope:
- Health – Being able to manage physical and mental health symptoms and to make informed, healthy choices for themselves
- Home – Having safety and stability in the home environment
- Purpose – Having a reason to get up each morning. Purpose looks different for everyone, but a lot of people find purpose in work, school, volunteering, their faith, family interactions, and creative expression. A sense of purpose helps a person have some independence, an income, and the ability to be engaged in the world.
- Community – Having a sense of belonging, friendship, and love.
What Can I Say?
- Listen without judgment or interruption.
- Keep a positive attitude and an open mind.
- Validate your loved one’s feelings and experiences, even if you do not agree with their choices or their perception of the situation.
- Ask questions.
- Provide resources and information only after you have confirmed that this is what the person wants.
- Remind your friend or family member that it is okay to not be okay and that there are a lot of people struggling with mental health. Around 20 percent of Americans are experiencing mental health concerns at any given time.
Hope Requires Holistic Approaches
Imagine trying to do something you find incredibly difficult and frightening, while also battling a toothache, having no place to call home, struggling to find transportation, or feeling like no one cares about you.
Sometimes we reduce people in recovery from mental illness to a diagnosis. This shallow viewpoint can be very upsetting to people fighting mental illness, as it ignores their individual needs, interests, and dreams. At Highland Hospital, we know that it is far easier for people to recover from mental illness when their needs as a whole person are considered, including:
- Family and community
- Employment and education
- Medical and dental care
- Social and creative outlets
The Value of Role Models
Beyond having loved ones and providers who believe recovery is possible, it can also be immensely helpful for people with mental health conditions and their families to be able to interact with other people who have successfully navigated a path to recovery. Peer support specialists and family peer supports are becoming a bigger piece of the mental health system. Sharing stories helps to increase hope for others in similar situations.
At Highland Hospital in Charleston, West Virginia, we believe that recovery is possible for everyone. We strive to give our patients and their support systems hope for their future.