Western Mail Profiles: Dr Michael Coffey

‘A sense of identity seems to help recovery from mental ill health’

Michael Coffey is Associate Professor at the College of Human and Health Sciences, Swansea University and is currently investigating the role of care co-ordination in recovery from mental health problems.

There is a well-known statistic that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point during our lives. When you think of an average life expectancy and the range of challenges we will face across that time one wonders how that number isn’t higher. Nevertheless for most of us these experiences are short-lived and we get better and move on with our lives. For a portion of people however their condition is so serious that it endures and complicates all aspects of their daily existence.

These conditions are sometimes referred to as serious and enduring mental illnesses. Many people who get categorised with these conditions receive help from mental health and social care services. For many years the outlook for them has been bleak with little optimism that things might ever get better. More recently however it has been shown that a significant portion of people actually recover and rebuild their lives despite this gloom. This idea of recovery challenges the pessimism that has surrounded these conditions. Oddly we don’t know much about what it is that services do that can help this process or how people themselves go about it.

It has been known for some time that identity, that is how we are known by ourselves and by others, is an important aspect of recovering from mental ill health. In a recent project I have found that people with these conditions build recovery by piecing together those aspects of identity that help them to integrate and once again be part of the communities they live in. This involves establishing new roles and purpose in their daily lives and building connections with others.

This is an active process on the part of individuals that professionals need to be more aware of to improve the chances of recovery. To find out more we are now examining if the way in which care is co-ordinated by mental health services supports recovery. We are doing this by measuring how people are being helped in Wales and comparing this across multiple services. This will give us new knowledge about what works so we can design and test new approaches to care that will improve recovery in these conditions.

A related issue is that there seems to be an association between more involvement by the person in decisions about their care and improvements in mental health. We are now planning to investigate in a further study how people are included in decisions about their care, if they get to have a say and how this relates to recovery and their quality of life.

Understanding more about how recovery is helped or even hindered is an important step in creating new approaches to help people live fulfilling lives. It shifts our focus from mental illness to mental health and offers true hope that mental distress need not be a gloomy ending but can lead to new beginnings.

Michael may be contacted at m.j.coffey@swansea.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail on 28th October 2013, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.