What is the broad definition of empowerment? It is the process of gaining freedom and power to do what you want or to control what happens to you.
Empowerment is a word that covers many meanings and layers as we learn from the definition. Empowerment is used in different contexts but today I’ll focus on empowerment within mental health and recovery.
When I was confronted with mental illness in my life, it felt like depression took everything down in one fell swoop. I’m not saying that it was there all of the sudden but the effects were pretty devastating. Becoming empowered plays an important role in rehabilitation. That is the process (to me at least) where you discover yourself behind the mask of being an ill person, when you realize that every mental challenge presents itself different within the community. Step by step I’m finding the pieces of ‘me’ again and I try to compose them into a significant ‘whole’ being. Different as I used to be but still me. Does that sound confusing to you? It can be for me too. By walking you through the different key factors of becoming empowered I hope I can shed some light on this topic.
Chamberlin (1997) conducted research to find out what is meant when speaking of empowerment. She and the participants decided early in their discussions that empowerment was a complex, multidimensional concept, and that it described a process rather than an event. Therefore, you don’t need to display every quality on the list  of concepts in order to be considered empowered. It is important to know that a working definition is used, precisely to spark further discussion. In this post I’ll discuss the importance of decision making. Other key factors of empowerment will be discussed further next month.
1.Having decision-making power.
There are a lot of decisions to be made in life. Mental illness can make that process even more difficult. I know that depression can make it impossible to make some choices. I just couldn’t decide on the smallest things because of the lack of capacity in my brain. Everything I needed to think about ‘extra’ was a burden. I found things more ‘ugly’, ‘unpleasant’ and ‘not important’. Yet at the right time the decision making muscle needs to be trained again. One of the very first signs that I was recovering was when I noticed the taste of food again. I’ve cooked something that actually tasted good to me. That I choose to do. I was so proud of me and happy. You may think that deciding what to eat, what to wear, when to go out isn’t a big deal but it can be a great starting point, one that needs to be cherished.
Are you empowered yet? While choosing a new hobby can be great, you also need to be able to make decisions in regards to your treatment and life decisions. The very first time I heard my diagnosis of burnout I told myself and my GP that I wasn’t going to work at my current workplace anymore. I was told I wasn’t fit enough to make that decision at the time what came as a shock to me. I wasn’t given all the proper information what resigning at that point in time would mean for me financially. I just felt like the ‘crazy’ one. The importance of information and resources to make an informed decision brings us to the next point.
2. Having access to information and resources.
To become more empowered and to be able to make the right decision for you, you need to make an informed choice. This implies that you have access to all the available options and that you understand their consequences. While my doctor proposed me my first medication I knew what it was and that would be my first choice too. This helped me to gain trust in my doctor. Some few medications along the way, I feel that I’m recovering. But I do experience unpleasant side effects. I did discuss them with my doctor and I understand why my medication has to stay at the same dose. You can’t be an expert on everything and I’m not pretending that I’m smarter than him, in no way shape or form. But I do feel that my psychiatrist is honest and transparent while discussing side-effects for example. Because of the already existing ones, we opted not to add to the current mix of medications anymore. When you aren’t presented all the options, you can’t make the right decision.
3. Having a range of options from which to make choices (not just yes/no, either/or).
Picking one activity over the other could be seen as an either/or possibility. When people tell you that exercise is good for you while you’re depressed, it can feel like you need to chose between walking or even slower walking. This is not the point of making your own choices. You need to pick and choose things that accommodate to your wishes and dreams. I’m not implying that everything should be possible right at your fingertips. I dream of world peace and I do hope for it but is that an achievable dream, a dream that as a whole must come true through my choices? No, but I start by taking small steps and to recycle because I care about the environment. I try to be kind to my friends, family and pets. When I can maintain some piece of peace and happiness in my own living room, I’m quite happy with that. I choose things that support my identity and values. I do have the feeling that I can make a difference in my own life.
What do you think about the topic of decision making in (mental) health treatment? Can you make your own decisions or do you feel that you are limited in a way? Have you ever encountered a situation where you weren’t (viewed) as fit enough to have anything to say in important life decisions or in your overall treatment? Let me know in the comments, I enjoy reading your experiences, thoughts and questions.
Resources, references and notes.
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