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Living Recovery

Youth Speak Out on “Owning” Mental Illness

By JoAnn Elizabeth Leavey
Subjects Psychology, Social Science, Child Studies
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Paperback : 9781554589173, 165 pages, February 2015
Ebook (EPUB) : 9781554589197, 165 pages, February 2015

Table of contents

Excerpts from Living Recovery: Youth Speak Out on “Owning†Mental Illness by JoAnn Elizabeth Leavey

From the Acknowledgements

I own the illness; the illness does not own me.

From Chapter 1

Alex: I just feel that I’m sad that I have a mental illness, because well, for one thing I’m just sad because I don’t want something bad. I see mental illness as bad, a bad omen, and especially since society used mental illness as something crazy or disturbed people have. Like they have those TV movies where, you know, a person is compulsively doing this and they’re thinking about spiders and spiders crawl on them. They make it so drastic, these illnesses, that people see it just as bad.

From Chapter 4

Carrie: Just don’t look at anything bad, just keep on going, keep your high hopes and just keep on going and just don’t look around people around you … or don’t look at them or their habits, because just do what you think you have to do and don’t get caught up. [pause] Don’t think of anything negative too much. Just keep on going with the good because negative affects your thinking, if you think negative you’re going to get more negative, more negative.

From Chapter 1

In conducting this research, it was my privilege to hear fifty-three young people from three countries describe their journeys with mental illness. Together we explored what it was like living with a mental health problem; their subsequent adjustment problems due to the social stigma associated with mental illness; how they became alienated or self-marginalized because of the symptoms of the illness; and the social consequences they experienced because of the stigma. The youth were excited to have the opportunity to share their stories and express what was important to them about their experiences. They were firmly committed to telling their stories so that newly diagnosed youth or those beginning to feel “different†from the norm would have a chance to know that others feel the same way. The youth also wanted to encourage a more generous understanding of mental illness, one that includes less judgment and stigma. They opened their hearts so that others would open their minds to reduce negative labels and stigma. It is with this aim that I share their stories.

I would like to start by explaining my interest in young people experiencing mental health problems. As a result of several years of research, clinical work, advocacy, systems reviews, systems planning, evaluation, and discussion on the topic of youth and mental illness/wellness, I was impressed by the positive contributions that young people made to their own adaptation and recovery processes. I was particularly interested in their resilience in the face of being labelled with a mental health problem. For instance, these youth still managed to contribute to society, even though they felt stigmatized and initially frightened by the process of receiving a diagnosis and intervention. Further, I was impressed by their complete willingness to enhance our understanding by bravely sharing their stories. Their goal was to help other youth who might not be receiving the support they needed, or who were experiencing their first episode or emergence of a mental health problem and did not know whom to turn to. Finally, these young people were concerned about the future and were steadfastly working toward both personal and societal/community goals. All of these factors attracted my interest and curiosity.

In this book, you will learn how youth experience the emergence of their mental illness, the losses they experience, and how they adapt and recover. This information has the potential to open dialogue between youth, care providers, administrators, and policy-makers with the goal of developing a system of care that is more youth-centred. When mental health care programs and services become more relevant, timely, and meaningful, they then become more effective in the recovery process for young people.

So open your minds and your hearts to what is being presented. Use this information to help young people or anyone you may encounter who is experiencing a mental health problem to feel more accepted in society. Give them a chance to recover from the real problem, not the subsequent social marginalization they experience from being labelled as “different. “ It will take courage to stand up to old norms and advocate for young people with mental health problems. Reading this book will help convince you of the tremendous courage, strength, and insights these youth have regarding their own experiences, along with their desire to share in order to help other youth. This book is about their journeys, their experiences, and their offer to teach us what they know; their ultimate hope is that we will listen and that others will suffer less.

From Chapter 3

Generally, I asked all participants questions about the relationship between mental illness and their lives. Responses sometimes differed between females and males, and not surprisingly, similarities emerged in same-sex responses. In general, females were more often concerned about being judged by peers and friends and losing social standing, whereas males were more concerned with family status. Both groups, however, seemed equally concerned with losing scholastic footing and vocational dreams and ability, although more females were currently working and concerned with future employment than males. Interestingly, the essence of what participants had to say was concordant despite the cultural diversity of the sample group. In fact, their norms, values, and interpretations of the social meaning of mental illness were similar, regardless of their gender or cultural background.

From Chapter 5

A Developing Theory

The meaning of mental illness to youth, the concept of the “interrupted self,†or the “mentally ill self,†as evidenced by the data in this study, can be stated as follows:

Illness considered as process helps us understand the experience of youth being diagnosed with a mental illness. We can view this process through a set of stages emergence, loss, adaptation, and recovery that youth move through in a dynamic manner at different times during their illness. Understanding the onset of mental illness in young people as a process is an important means by which to consider how youth adapt and change in relation to their internal and external circumstances of biological and social changes.

Overall, youth with mental illness experience their social world as a place where they are labelled and stigmatized. Youth with mental illness are required to negotiate the world through mental illness, which is present in all aspects of their internal physiological and external social experiences. The social and biological reality of mental illness creates the meaning of their worlds; that meaning then defines their internal and external environments. Therefore, what they experience externally has the potential to be expressed internally through a developmental disruption. Youth experience the effects of the social construction of mental illness and subsequently may experience the reality of an “interrupted-self. “ When mental illness leads to an interrupted-self, there are negative identity and developmental implications for social maturation and development. This social reality is further complicated by youth having no control over the biological facts of acquiring the illness. Therefore, initially youth are victim to their illness both biologically and socially and must learn how to cope with this reality state, or way of being, and recover.


Living Recovery provides critical information for practitioners and educators in mental health services about the self-described needs of young people diagnosed with mental illness. It portrays the stages of living with mental illness through the recovery model ELAR emergence, loss, adaptation, and recovery. The author interviewed youth aged sixteen to twenty-seven in Canada, Australia, and the US, and her book relates the price of the stigma surrounding mental illness, especially for young people who are already challenged with the developmental tasks of adolescence. The text examines the youth-described “social illness†of stigma and the resulting self-marginalization they say is necessary to survive stigma and social isolation. When youth feel isolated, ignored, or shunned, the resulting shame and stress they may feel has the potential to exacerbate such illnesses as obsessive compulsive disorder, psychosis, anxiety, and/or various mood disorders.

The findings from this research anticipate and identify interventions that are useful for youth with mental illness. If programs and systems of care take into account youth stories such as those presented here, interventions will become more meaningful and more likely to address problems related to social and emotional distresses.

In charting journeys through the emergence of illness, to loss, adaptation, and recovery, the book reports on how mental illness disrupted these youths’ lives on every level, especially in the transition from late adolescence to young adulthood. But youth also describe ways in which they adapted and recovered and how they came to “own the illness†with a greater sense of agency and self-direction.


Table of Contents for
Living Recovery: Youth Speak Out on “Owning†Mental Illness by JoAnn Elizabeth Leavey


Chapter One: Framing the Context for Youth with Mental Illness


Terms Used in This Book

Who Is This Book For?

Redefining Our Understanding of Mental "Illness"

The Journey of Youth Through the Mental Health System

Framing the Context for Youth Living with Mental Illness

The Effects of a Mental Illness Diagnosis on Youth

Youth, Metaphor, and Mental Illness

Youth and the Social Construction of Mental Illness

The Significance and Direction of This Work


Chapter Two: How Do Youth Experience Mental Illness?

Prevalence of Mental Illness

Growing Up: Forming Identity and Developmental Tasks for Young People

Some Common Problems Experienced by Youth with Mental Illness


Chapter Three: Youth Participants: Who Are They?

Research Objectives

Why Use Qualitative Research?

The Interviews

Demographic Profile of Participants

My Impressions of Participants


Chapter Four: Youth Speak: Mental Health Experiences and Needs

Data Analysis: Emergency, Loss, Adaptation, and Recovery (ELAR)

What Do Youth Have to Say?

1. Emergence

2. Loss

3. Adaptation

4. Recovery


Chapter Five: Understanding: Integrating the Results

Integrating the Results and the Stages of Emergence, Loss, Adaptation, and Recovery

General Context

Developing Theory about Youth and Mental Illness: A Framework for Understanding

Considerations for Practice

The Stages of Emergence, Loss, Adaptation, and Recovery

Integration and Implications of Key Findings


Chapter Six: Where Are We and Where Do We Go from Here?

Gap in Service Delivery

Significance of Early Intervention

Implications and Suggestions for Testing the Theoretical Framework

Adaptation: A Conceptual Approach

Recovery and Wellness

Implications and Suggestions for Future Program and Policy Design

Limits and Benefits of This Research

Suggestions for Future Research