Recovery Heroes: Pat Deegan

We share in the certainty that people labeled with mental illness are first and above all, human beings. Our lives are precious and are of infinite value.

–Patricia E. Deegan, Recovery and the Conspiracy of Hope

From the videos of her many talks and lectures, audiences can see that Pat Deegan is an exceptionally well-spoken woman with a pleasant voice and short gray hair. At one time, however, she was doomed to only live as a single label: “schizophrenic.”

In her teen years, she was an exceptional athlete with a bright future. Her dreams got derailed when, as a high school senior, she was institutionalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Her first experience that led to her diagnosis was during basketball practice– her depth perception suddenly began to fail. She then began to hear distressing, omnipresent voices that were impossible to ignore. The people around her began to seem like clones or copies of the true person, in accordance with a sinister plot– making them impossible to trust and leading to a hellish experience of isolation.

She was institutionalized a total of nine times, and in between was rendered zombie-like by her Haldol. Even on the medication, she was still hearing voices– they were just muddled. Her psychiatrists told her that this was what her life was going to look like from then on, and all she could do was avoid stress and take her medication exactly as they prescribed it.

After one meeting in which her hopeless prognosis was repeated, she said to herself, “I’m going to become Dr. Deegan and change the mental health system so no one else gets hurt by it.” Obviously, one person can’t fix a whole system, but Dr. Deegan has pioneered vast frontiers of the recovery landscape and become an indispensable resource for people with mental health struggles.

Her first steps toward recovery were simple: she went grocery shopping with her grandmother (just to push the cart, she told her) and she learned that listening to her favorite tunes on her Walkman would drown out the voices. She had discovered the power of self-care and these simple acts, among others, began to give her life meaning and purpose. Soon, she was taking courses at the local community college. Sometimes she missed class because she had been institutionalized, but she persevered anyway.

This sense of meaning and purpose is what Pat Deegan preaches today. Recovery, she says, cannot happen in a vacuum, and all people need a higher purpose to live for. We must all find a role in which we belong, whether that is walking the dog, running an Etsy store, or helping other people with their mental health struggles.

She made good on her promise to herself and got her PhD from Duquesne in 1984. Now, she works as an independent consultant and an adjunct professor at Darthmouth College in New Hampshire. She educates professionals and consumers on the Recovery Model, which is the antithesis of the Maintenance Model her doctors had espoused. She still hears voices sometimes, but she has learned to cope and no longer finds herself “derailed” by them.

If you would like to hear more from Pat Deegan and others like her, you can subscribe to her resource database Recovery Library for $5 per month.

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