Narratives of hope in mental illness

Helping people support each other to move from distress to a state of flourishing

As a self-confessed pessimist, I often shy away from hope. I don’t mean that I am sunk in despair – I have no right to be: I’ve had a charmed life, free of the horrid things that happen to people.

But I approach hope with caution. For instance, I tend to look on the future (whether next week or the rest of my life) as a sort of snake that could bite me with poisoned fangs unless I handle it carefully.

Somewhere in my head, I believe that if I get carried away by hope, the snake will strike.

Which is a pity because hope is an important element of mental health. This has been brought home to me again by reading Narratives of Recovery from Mental Illness by Mike Watts and Agnes Higgins. The book is based on the experiences of 26 members of Grow in which people support each other to move from the distress of mental illness to a state of flourishing.


Grow is an international body which has been working in Ireland for decades.

Its members believe full recovery with the help of one’s peers is a normal human process. Hope is a powerful ingredient in this process.

If so, hope is an attitude to cultivate in all our lives regardless of whether we, or anyone else, defines us as having a mental illness.

Those who experienced hope and recovery through Grow include Richard, dealing with the pain of “an unwanted and devastating marriage separation” and Claire, who lost her grandson and then her son to suicide.

Though he cried when he tried to speak at Grow meetings, Richard could see that other people were making progress by focusing on one issue at a time “and this was great, rather than being overwhelmed by everything”. Eventually, “I found that my own mountains slowly became molehills and life became manageable.”

In fact, he now says, his wife did him a favour by ending the marriage. “I wouldn’t be able to put up with her nowadays, not at all. I’m a very different person now, you know.”

Mutual help is very much part of a healthy mental health process as outlined in the book

Claire heard an interview on the radio with another woman who had lost her 16-year old son to suicide and who had started a youth suicide-prevention campaign. She got in touch with her. Later, as Claire told her own story on local radio, “a community began to grow around her”. Today she and the woman whose story had spurred her on are working hard in the hope of reducing suicide among young Irish men.

The book’s authors write that hope, “gave each person permission to allow the emergence of new and exciting thoughts about themselves and their future”. What brought them back to the Grow group, week after week, was “the possibility of things being better”.

Mike Watts has worked in the area of recovery for more than 30 years and is a former member of the Mental Health Commission. He has been involved with Grow since 1976. Agnes Higgins is a former mental health nurse and now Professor in Mental Health at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, TCD.

And what about me and my attitude of suspicion towards hope? Reading these stories it strikes me that I have, indeed, been hopeful in my own way. Each turn I have deliberately taken in my life has involved new and exciting thoughts about the future. That’s a product of hope.

Each life-change has also involved support from many other people. Mutual help is very much part of a healthy mental health process as outlined in the book.

Instead of going around declaring myself to be a pessimist perhaps I should be more open to cultivating hope as a deliberate attitude.

I am also, though, a person who doesn’t like to move too far, too fast.

So perhaps, for now, I will move (cautiously) from being a pessimist to being a hopeful pessimist.