Goals and Mental Health Recovery

Moving out of our teenage years and into early adult life should be a very exciting period.

We have so many options for study and careers. We can travel and enjoy our new independence. Fun, adventures, progress, and romance – what a fantastic time of life! But for many of us that is exactly when we first received a diagnosis of mental illness. Schizophrenia and other mental illnesses frequently charge into our lives in the late teens and early twenties. Just when life should be so good, it suddenly seems so bad.  All our dreams for the future can evaporate away as we face the possibility of long-term mental health struggles. It feels so unfair.  But be encouraged: our plans may need to change, but we can still have a fantastic life. In fact, goals and dreams are an important part of our recovery.

  • Who we are now is not who we will always be. No one truly knows how much potential they have. True, mental health challenges might be having a huge impact on us but, even if that continues for a long time, we can still learn and grow. It may be that we will take a slower route but we should not limit our dreams because of how we see ourselves now. The ‘you’ you will become in one, two, five and ten years time is going to be so much wiser, more knowledgeable, mature and experienced. You will enjoy being that person! You will be proud to be you!  Your dreams might be out of reach of the current version of yourself but that future self will be able to nail it!  
  • Yard by yard is very hard but inch by inch is a cinch. If you have grown up with metric measurements, you may be wondering what that means! Basically: big, overly ambitious steps might fail but small steps will succeed.  Keep moving forwards towards your goals, but do it in small steps. If I tried to run a marathon today I’d collapse in exhaustion!  I’d better start with  tiny ‘inch sized steps’, such as walking around the block.  If I do that three of four times this week, next week, I’ll walk two blocks a day. If I keep notching up that process, bit by bit, I’ll be running a marathon within a year! 
  • Congratulations! Notice and praise yourself on your progress.  If we couldn’t get out of bed before midday last week, but this week we were up and dressed by 10:00a.m., that is huge progress we can be proud of. That is not the end goal, but it is a significant step in the right direction.  It reminds us that we are not stuck. We’re growing, moving on, getting better… and getting closer to those goals.  
  • Bigger goals at a bigger distance. Motivational speakers always urge us to set huge audacious goals, to shoot for the moon and go for the mountain top. That is fine. But those speakers have no idea what that advice sounds like to someone with depression. Big goals motivate most people, but if we are depressed, they can actually demotivate us, if we don’t ‘handle’ those dreams properly.  Have the big goals, but stretch the time line and put more modest, but still significant intermediate goals, into your plans. Instead of the goal, “Graduate from Med School in five years”, change it to, “Enroll and pass some papers and let’s gradually master the stress of daily study and exams. Med School will keep. I’ll get there when I am ready.” Instead of, “I’m going to find someone and be married and have a family by thirty”, change it to, “I’m going to be healthy and whole for any future partner I might have. I deserve happiness, and so do they, so I am not going to rush ahead of my recovery.” The dreams are fine, but be prepared to adjust the timing.
  • Dreams do change.  The reality is that some of us lose jobs and relationships because of our mental health problems.  I won’t disrespect your pain and grief by trying to put some rosy spin on this. It is really sad and hard.  By all means, grieve the loss of that job or relationship or plan – it’s healthy to. It’s an obstacle… but it is not the end of the road. It will be hard after a setback like this, and even harder if we are also impacted by an episode of poor mental health at the same time, but the nature of life is that as one door closes, others open.   And… new dreams. This is not magic or wishful thinking: if we don’t let set-backs drive us into frozen despair, we eventually move into new chapters of life, and they can be very good chapters.  A fantastic attitude to have: “I’m either up, or I’m getting up!”.

Goal setting is a great therapeutic thing to do. It may even be something you would like to do with a friend or support worker.

  • What am I fascinated by and gives me pleasure?
  • What gives me a sense of accomplishment?
  • What do others say that I am good at?
  • Is there someone living the type of life I would like to live?
  • What are my values? (The best goals flow out of our core beliefs).
  • What would I like to achieve in life?

Let the big goals come and settle in your mind and, better still, settle on a page that you write out. Then, starting with the tiniest steps, “What do I have to start doing to reach those goals?”