Mental Disorders are the highest health care cost in America. A study published by Health Affairs last year revealed that cost of treating mental health disorders exceeded$201 billion in 2013 (and that number is only rising). Mental health care was more expensive than heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Currently in the US there is a huge focus on the problem that mental health, addiction, and other related issues cause, but there is not an emphasis on the solutions available for those who suffer. For instance, in the case of those who suffer from opioid addiction, they are made to feel different from and separate from others because of their chronic disease and the devastating impacts it has on society at large. Doctors Yngvild Olsen and Joshua M. Sharfstein summarize it nicely in their publication, Confronting the Stigma of Opioid Use Disorder—and Its Treatment.
“The understanding of opioid use disorder as a medical illness is still overshadowed by its misconception as a moral weakness or a willful choice.”
One way to change the tide on treatment of mental health disorders and addiction is to implement strengths-based data that leverages the positive sides of the illness by acknowledging addiction and other mental health issues as chronic illnesses and also by utilizing each individual’s strengths to facilitate a more successful recovery.
The strengths-based approach looks beyond the negative aspects and effects of a disease, and instead looks at an individual’s unique strengths and abilities. These attributes are examined at an individual level in the recovery process to determine how they can be leveraged to promote overall health and well-being. The reasoning behind using a strengths-based approach over one that focuses on the negative effects of a mental health disorder is it pivots away from a focus on symptoms that induce the sickness and toward identifying how a patient’s own abilities can aide in their recovery. If a healthcare provider treats a patient’s illness by focusing on the negatives then the patient will also have a negative perception of their illness which is detrimental to the healing process.
A strengths-based method is especially important in patients who suffer from mental health issues. Traditional medicine focuses on pathologies that aren’t necessarily applicable or effective in treating chronic mental illnesses like addiction. Individuals suffering from mental health issues differ from those who suffer from physical ailments in that their symptoms aren’t always easily identifiable or measurable. This makes ensuring positive outcomes in the treatment and recovery process far more complicated.
The stigma associated with mental health and addiction makes matters for those who suffer from these chronic diseases even worse. In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for practitioners working with mental health patients to have negative perceptions of the clients and fail to identify a patient’s strengths, instead focusing on pathology and dysfunction. Stigma can create an unsafe environment for those suffering from mental illness and addiction. Further, stigma leads to patients not seeking treatment for fear of judgement, embarrassment, and guilt about their condition. A strengths-based approach turns that classic stigma on its head and works to uplift and empower the patient in order to work toward a healthy mental and physical state.
Mental illness and addiction are chronic diseases, so there is no cure only maintenance and no two individuals can be treated the same. Every patient is affected in a unique way and each individual must develop their own system of understanding and coping with their mental health issues while maintaining the confidence and mental fortitude to overcome.
Traditionally, mental disease was viewed as an irreversible neurological disorder and treatment prospects were grim. It was treated based on pathology with an emphasis on the patient’s failures. Injecting a strengths-based method into the recovery process as an additional tool in a comprehensive treatment program can illuminate an individual’s strengths and needs. Instead of being stigmatized by their disease, they are empowered by positive aspects of themselves that they recognize as unique. In this way, their recovery lifts them up in a positive way rather than shaming or blaming them for their chronic disease.
Traditional methods aren’t entirely out the door in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders. Without traditional methods of detection the patient may never be aware of their condition in the first place.It’s the individual’s recovery process that benefits from this shift to a strengths-based model.
Data collected on populations who were treated using a strengths-based approach found that strengths can bring about positive outcomes in life, physical, and mental health. In fact, in control groups who were treated with a strengths-based model and one where weaknesses were used the strengths-based model had higher life satisfaction scores reported by participants. The bottom line is that research has shown a focus on individual strengths directly results in a more positive outcome in patients and their sense of personal satisfaction.
We’ve talked before about the significance of outcomes data in the recovery process. It is important to note that collecting data involves holding treatment providers accountable for not only collecting the data, but also accountable for the implementation of effective treatment methods based on that data. Once implementation takes place and treatment methods are improved, the positive shifts in treating the addiction epidemic will continue to increase exponentially.