Dr Mike Watts
Learning from and about peoples' experiences of mental health in a caring and compassionate way is paramount if we are to function well together as a community.
Mental health practitioner and writer Mike Watts manages to do this masterfully in his new book Recovery from Mental Illness - The Role of Peer Support.
Mike has an interesting perspective on mental health - having experienced anxiety first hand, and then availing of services before going on to study psychology and work in the area for over 30 years. He is familiar with the topic from many perspectives and this is reflected in his gentle and empathetic tone which runs through the book as he shares snippets of the lives, and the stories behind the lives, of the people who use the mental health support group, Grow.
In his book he illustrates how peer and community support is crucial to recovery.
“I joined Grow in 1976 out of personal need as a member. I joined looking for help as I had anxiety at the time. It was the first place where I found some hope and the people there helped me to make my own recovery plan.
“I discovered that there are things that I could do to help overcome my anxiety like saying hello to someone instead of pretending that I didn’t see them. I got challenged by the group to start joining things and getting involved in my local community.”
At that time Mike was living with his wife Fran and their three young children and they had a small farm in Co Clare.
Mike decided to challenge himself and go back to college and he studied a degree in Psychology in University College Galway. The family sold the farm and Mike settled into college and found activities that suited him.
In his earlier years Mike had failed his A levels three times because of his anxiety. After accessing support and dealing with his anxiety he excelled in education and ranked third highest in his results of his Psychology degree.
After completing his degree he went on to work with Grow and worked for the organisation both in the South-East and nationally for over 30 years.
In 1990 Mike completed a Masters degree in Family Therapy and when he was approaching retirement he studied a PHD in Trinity College Dublin.
As part of his PHD Mike interviewed 26 members of Grow, all of whom had been there for a minimum of three years, and are considered to be recovered. Those interviewed had experienced a range of mental health difficulties including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety and depression.
Dr Mike Watts, Trinity Research Fellow, co-author of the book, and former National Programme Coordinator with GROW said: “This study is really important for a number of reasons. First, it challenges people’s perceptions about the competency of people with mental health problems around their own recovery and highlights how peer-supported empowerment and risk taking is so powerful in helping and supporting people find niches in the community so they can move beyond the peer support community. Second, the stories in this book are a source of hope to people struggling with ‘mental illness’ and emotional distress and demonstrate many unexplored avenues and paths to recovery that need to be considered.”
“I asked everyone the same question - can you tell me how Grow helped you to recover. Recovery can be seen as a re-enchantment of life,” he said.
Dr Watts outlined how people can be trapped in places of terror in their emotions, physiology and thoughts. There can be many reasons for this including isolation, bullying, unemployment, abuse and parental breakdown.
There are three stages along the road to recovery - the first is feeling trapped and in a place of terror and looking for professional help, which can often be quite terrifying. The second stage is a time for healing and finding peer support and the third stage is about finding new identities.
“The second stage is about building up the courage to go out into the group and it is a place of hope and understanding where people can feel understood and are challenged to take on risks and responsibility.
“The third stage is an opportunity to become a leader through education, employment or leisure and find a purpose and discover new identities,” said Dr Watts explaining how people can discover leadership and start to give back.
Grow is Ireland’s largest mutual help organisation with 130 groups around the country. Grow in Kilkenny is located on Barrack Street.
Dr Watts will deliver a talk on his book at its official launch at Rothe House on October 9 at 7pm.
The book is co-written by Professor Agnes Higgins, who was Dr Watts’ PHD supervisor.