Dr Nicola Wright – The Politics of Recovery in Mental Health: A Left Libertarian Policy Analysis

Turner (2002) identifies that recovery has been described as an idea, a movement, a philosophy, a set of values, a policy mantra and also a doctrine for change.  It splits opinion between those who view it as simplistic and obvious and others who see its revolutionary and transformatory potential.  Although increasingly fashionable within current mental health policy and practice, there are precedents for recovery as far back as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  For example Phillippe Pinel appointed ex-service users in a bid for a humane regime at Biceptre in Paris and William Tuke developed moral therapy and self management approaches at the York retreat (Scull, 1981).  However, the roots of recovery are most firmly established in movements of protest intended to improve conditions in asylums and to give equal rights to citizens with disabilities.  Judy Chamberlin articulates these rights based approach when she appeals for recognition of the skills and abilities of people with mental health problems to make their own decisions, run their own lives and provide support for one another (1990, 1978).  While the normative claims of recovery have been adopted within English policy, its implementation in mainstream services is heavily critiqued by service users; the main point being that recovery has come to mean all things to all people (MIND, 2008).  Indeed there is a risk that its increasingly popular status and dominance as a paradigm within policy discourses will lead to it being co-opted and distorted by policy makers and experts in the field.

With colleagues in the School of Nursing we used Noam Chomsky’s critical methodology, as an exemplar of a left libertarian position, (Edgley, 2000; 2005; 2009) to provide a theoretical analysis and test of the coherence of the recovery model (Edgley et al., 2012).  We also used it as a critical mechanism to judge manifestations of recovery in practice settings.  In Chomsky’s political philosophy we find that hope is both a pre-requisite and a pre-condition for a trusting and supportive environment.  Everyone, whether or not they have mental health problems, need these conditions to be able to access and utilise their creativity in dealing with their current reality.  For Chomsky, hope, our innate creativity and a supportive community are the necessary conditions of freedom.  In Chomsky’s view, if our society nurtured our creative potentials, then our human nature would not confine itself to searching for autonomy and independence but would instead generate interdependent arrangements.  This could have direct implications for the implementation of recovery; it suggests that those experiencing mental ill health need to be the co-creators of policy and practice, rather than its passive recipients and they need to be able to build and use their own theoretical structure such as that offered by Chomsky.  This would protect recovery from being ideologically driven and open to political interpretation and potentially more importantly provide the basis to evaluate and present evidence on its own terms.  As we conclude in the article:

“The recovery paradigm has the essential elements in place, but control over its application – and lives- needs to be reclaimed from the state and experts alike before adoption turns to assimilation or perhaps co-option turns to emasculation.”

Posted by:
Dr Nicola Wright
Research Fellow: Research Delivery and Support Unit
Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Lincolnshire

Edgley, A (2000) The Social and Political Thought of Noam Chomsky.  London: Routledge.

Edgley A (2005) Chomsky’s political critique: Essentialism and political theory.  Contemporary Political Theory 4: 129-153.

Edgley A (2009) Manufacturing consistency: Social science, rhetoric and Chomsky’s critique special issue: The Herman-Chomsky propaganda model twenty years on.  Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture 6(2): 23-42.

Edgley A, Stickley T, Wright N and Repper J (2012) The politics of recovery in mental health: A left libertarian policy analysis.  Social Theory and Health 10(2): 121-140.

MIND (2008) Life and Times of a Supermodel.  The Recovery Paradigm for Mental Health.  MindThink Report 3.  London: MIND.

Scull A (1981) Madhouses, Mad-Doctors and Mad-Men: The Social History of Psychiatry in the Victorian Era.  Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.



1 Comment

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One response to “Dr Nicola Wright – The Politics of Recovery in Mental Health: A Left Libertarian Policy Analysis

  1. Hugh Middleton

    I couldn’t agree more. Foucault makes a similar point as he describes how Pinel’s and Tuke’s work became oppressive as it became corrective, and how introduction of medical “treatment” consolidated this (page 264 of Howard’s 2007 translation, Madness and Civilisation).
    Hugh Middleton

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