Positive psychology turning mental illness on its head

 A focus on people’s strengths not just symptoms or challenges is helping people with mental disorders achieve a better quality of life and avoid being defined by their condition.

Positive psychology is part of the recovery movement that focuses on treating the entire person, says Professor Greg Murray, a psychologist who specialises in bipolar disorder from Swinburne University of Technology.

The area, which has been increasingly embraced by psychologists in the past 30 years, has shifted the traditional biomedical-model focus from treating a person’s mental health problems to promoting their strengths and overall wellbeing.

“A criticism of the biomedical model is that it overlooks the person with the mental disorder,” he says.

“When you are feeling vulnerable, with troubles around mood or anxiety, and you go to a mental health practitioner, you don’t want them just to pay attention to those symptoms – you want them to pay attention to you as a person.

“We all have broader goals and aims in life than just decreasing our symptoms – I want good quality of life, I want a job, I want a relationship, I want to get on well with my kids, I want to have some hobbies.

“In particular, people with serious mental disorders tell us they’re a bit sick of being defined solely by their mental disorder.

“The recovery movement says when we work with people with mental disorders we have to value them as people. It’s just sensible.”

How positive psychology works

Professor Murray FAPS* says positive psychology is an approach to wellbeing that adopts a more positive view of the person, cultivating their strengths.

“They might have problems in some areas of their life but things are going well in other areas of their life, and so we will build on those areas where things are going well or build on their qualities and their strengths rather than putting lots of energy into trying to decrease their weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

“When you do that, there are lots of arguments and quite a bit of data showing that people can naturally find their way out of their current difficulties.

“In a way it’s offering them a different aim, a different way of thinking about the difficulties of life and the different ways to say – yes, there are difficulties in life but what are the strengths and resources you have and where are you wanting to head with your life?

“By paying attention to those things, we often see evidence that people can find their way out of their own problems without so much of a medical focus on the problems.”

Positive psychology for bipolar disorder

Professor Murray has been heavily involved in two new positive psychology initiatives designed to help people self-manage their bipolar disorder while empowering them to improve their health and quality of life.

The online Bipolar Wellness Centre features evidence-based information, videos and advice on how people with bipolar can manage different areas of their lives, such as relationships, employment or study, their mood and sleep.

Professor Murray is also leading a four-year international study which will trial an online psychological intervention for 300 people with bipolar disorder, focused on achieving quality of life instead of symptom relief.

“In schizophrenia, this recovery-focused thinking has been around for longer but in relation to bipolar disorder, the evidence is lagging behind the practice,” he says.

“This will be the first time that anyone has directly tested whether for a serious mental disorder like bipolar disorder that we can directly improve the quality of life of people by using these sorts of approaches.”

Tapping into the benefits of positive psychology:

  1. Change your thinking. Positive psychology is not about being happy all of the time. It focuses on understanding an individual’s strengths as well as their preferences, achievements, qualities, goals and hopes, and works to compliment traditional therapy and treatment.
  2. Ask a psychologist. Most psychologists in Australia now utilise positive psychology. Ask your psychologist what are their goals for the treatment of your problem. “The answer should be that the client actually has to tell the practitioner what they want to get out of treatment,” Professor Murray says. “People should really challenge their practitioner to think beyond that medical thinking and say – ‘no the goals of treatment should be that I’m leading the best quality of life that I possibly can’. That probably will involve a focus on the disorder but it should involve a focus on other things as well, such as quality of life goals and what you want your life to look like in five years’ time.”
  3. Learn to live with your mental illness. With no cures for mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, it’s important to focus on how you live with your condition. “We want to manage these conditions and decrease the symptoms,” Professor Murray says. “These are problems that have to be carried rather than treated and we want to help people carry them more comfortably.”
  4. Use online resources. Check out the Bipolar Wellness Centre website, which is designed to help people learn how to manage their bipolar disorder through their quality of life.


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