On Mental Illness: Insight Development is the Key to Recovery

By Jack Bragen
Wednesday February 02, 2011 - 01:52:00 PM

In the past, you have seen a person with bizarre or unusual behavior, and may have heard a comment from someone next to you that “he is off his medication…” People often believe medication is the solution for problems with mentally ill people. And while there is significant truth to this belief, a solid recovery requires more than taking the prescribed medication. If this weren‘t true, mentally ill people would be relapsing much less than they do. 

Gaining insight about life is vital to sustained recovery. These insights are about oneself, one’s behavior patterns, one’s condition, and even some insight that has arisen from meditative practices. The basic discovery that oneself is not perfect, which is an essential part of adulthood, has happened to some people with schizophrenia, in fact. 

The insight that says medication is needed, while a simple idea, is hard to learn for a person who is frequently in and out of psychosis. Yet gaining this insight is a necessary step. 

It would not be a symptom of cancer if someone were in denial that they were sick, or if that person refused conventional treatment in favor of homeopathic remedies. Mental illnesses, however, affect the mind. Because of this, one’s beliefs about one’s illness are affected by the illness. 

According to one source, approximately ten to twenty percent of women with breast cancer refuse conventional treatment, while, according to another source, approximately 75 percent of people diagnosed with schizophrenia will stop taking their neuroleptic medication in the first two years of treatment. 

“Noncompliance” with treatment is so common among people with schizophrenia that I believe it is a symptom of the illness. I also believe it is helpful to see it that way; it removes blame from the mentally ill person for the “noncompliance.” This should allow doctors and family to have a non-punishing attitude toward the afflicted person. In fact, the medication side effects can be fairly unbearable, which means that the person taking them must be very convinced of their necessity. So, not only is noncompliance a symptom of the illness, it is also a result of the primitiveness of the drugs that are being prescribed. 

Learning something the hard way is frequently a trait of mentally ill people. 

It can take the repeated hardship of devastating and dangerous psychiatric relapses before a person makes a lifetime commitment to taking medication. Sometimes, middle age appears first. Some mental health consumers go their entire lives without understanding the nature of their illness. However, this is still one of the very first rungs of the ladder of recovery. 

The acknowledgment that medication is necessary is sometimes a product of being forced to take medication for several months to a year. This gives the brain a chance to recover from psychosis and begin to function and reason normally. It is only upon emerging from the psychotic and delusional state of mind that the afflicted person realizes the treatment is working. 

While most persons with mental illness are against involuntary commitment, I can see the argument made by mental health treatment providers and family: People with schizophrenia often need to be forced to take medication, and this is often the only way such a person ever gets well. 

Once stabilized, that person can begin to make a life for him or her self. One insight that can occur is about how others may be perceiving him or her. It can come as a shock to realize that one hasn’t always been perceived in a positive light. At that point, the individual can amp up their resentment, or else they can begin to take steps toward remedying a checkered reputation. 

If there is a behavior that the person has that is objectionable to others, this can be a good stage at which it might get resolved, if the consumer is confronted about it. 

Mentally rehashing the past, with my present level of insight, I can see past behavior that hasn’t always been pristine. I can also see numerous missed opportunities that I could have used to make things better for myself. Had I known what I know now… 


Upcoming topics: Common myths about mental illness; Caring for a mentally ill family member. Comments can be sent care of the Berkeley Daily Planet, or can be sent directly to me at: