Setting the Intention to Heal: The Starting Point of Mental Health Recovery


“The readiness is all.”

William Shakespeare

In my work facilitating depression support groups, I have discovered three essential factors to healing from depression, which I call ”the three pillars of mental health recovery.”  In my earlier blogs for Mad in America I wrote about two of these pillars —connecting with community and using a holistic approach to treat symptoms. Now I would like to present the first and MOST IMPORTANT pillar — Setting the Intention to Heal.

I define setting the intention to heal as “making the decision that you want to get well, even if you don’t know how.”  Setting the intention to heal does not require that a person know the exact path that will heal him from a major depression or other mental health disorder. It just requires that he or she wants be well.

I believe that setting the intention to heal is the starting point of all mental health recovery. When it is present, recovery is all but assured; without it, no progress is possible.  There are at least two reasons for this. First, setting the intention stimulates and supports what physician Andrew Weil the body’s “healing system” — its innate capacity to control disease and bring itself back into balance. In his book Spontaneous Healing, Weil writes:

“The body can heal itself. It can do so because it has a healing system. At every level of biological organization, from DNA up, mechanisms of self-diagnosis, self-repair, and regeneration exist in us. Medicine that takes advantage of this innate healing is more effective than medicine that simply suppresses symptoms.”

Although we call depression a “mental health” disorder, many of its symptoms are physical–poor sleep, fatigue, lack of appetite, lack of sexual desire, etc.  Saying, “I want to feel better,” is the first step in activating the body’s healing system and changing one’s brain and body chemistry.

Intention is not like wishful thinking which is abstract, vague and passive. Like an arrow flying toward a target, intention is clear, specific, and has the power of commitment behind it. This one-pointed commitment activates not only healing forces within the body, but also benevolent forces from the outside. Consider this quotation from the Scottish writer W.H. Murray, in The Scottish Expedition:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen events and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamt would come their way.”

“I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets: ‘Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.'”

Murray’s faith in a responsive universe was echoed by the late mythologist Joseph Campbell who said, “Follow your bliss, and doors will open for where you would not have thought there were going to be doors and where there wouldn’t be a door for anybody else. There is something about the integrity of a life and the world moves in and helps.”

The idea that the universe responds to intention may sound like being a Polyanna to some, but I wouldn’t be here writing this article if this principle had not worked for me. During my episode of major depression, it appeared that my chances of surviving were close to zero. But just as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz never lost sight of her desire to return to Kansas, I continued to say to the universe, “Heal me from my affliction. Please release me from this pain.” Eventually, my Higher Power responded to my request and delivered me from the abyss.

Setting the Intention though Creating a Vision of Wellness 

There exists a powerful tool which I used o translate my intention to heal into a reality. It is called the vision statement. Essentially, the vision statement answers the question, “What would my life look and feel like if I were free from the symptoms of anxiety and depression?

A vision statement is based on the second habit from Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People— “begin with the end in mind.” According to Covey, this habit arises from the principle that “all things are created twice”—first in the mind and then in the world of form. In writing a vision statement, you create an exact mental blueprint or picture of health that you that you are seeking to bring into your life. This is exactly what Olympic athletes do through the practice of “visual rehearsal.” For example, a gymnast preparing for a floor routine will play over the entire routine in his imagination before he sets foot on the mat. In so doing, he is programming his nervous system to direct his body to perform optimally.

In a similar fashion, you and I can use visual rehearsal to direct our brain and nervous system towards a path of wellness. The following exercise shows how to do this .

Composing a Vision Statement

Imagine for a moment, that you were in a state of health and wholeness. Imagine that your mental and emotional health were functioning at optimal levels. What it be like for you to be in a better mood?

How would your body look and feel? How much energy would you have available to you?

How would you be feeling most of the time? What types of thoughts would you be thinking?

What types of relationships would you have? What kind of work would you be involved in? What would your spiritual life be like?

Drawing upon the answers to the above questions, on a separate page write a paragraph (or more) describing your vision of mental and emotional health.

See if you can use all five senses—sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste—to depict your experience. Set it down in the present tense, as if the experience were happening now.

As you proceed with this exercise, do your best to write something, even if recovery from depression seems like a distant reality. If you can’t imagine yourself being completely well, choose to see yourself feeling “a little bit better.” One woman simply stated, “I want to feel my life force again.” Remember, I am not asking you to believe in your healing; only to desire it.

If this still seems like too much, ask someone to help you write your vision statement—e.g., a friend, family member, your counselor, your doctor, etc. You don’t have to do this work alone.


One such person who embraced the vision statement was Dennis. When Dennis arrived at my support group, he was one of the most depressed people I had ever met. Three months ago, his wife had walked out on him, and since then he had been holed up in his apartment, mostly sleeping and not answering his mail or his phone calls. His dishes were piled high to the sealing and his undone laundry had created a mini Mt. Hood. He had virtually stopped eating and had lost fifteen pounds.

Although Dennis was deep in the abyss, he was desperate for help and told the group that he was willing to do whatever it took to change. (This willingness is considered by AA to be a crucial factor in healing from alcoholism). After Dennis stated his desire to be well, I gave him a homework assignment to write out his vision statement and present it to the group. When he showed up the following week, Dennis brought with him a detailed vision statement of wellness. Here is an excerpt.

I am calm and peaceful. My energy is strong and good. I sleep well and peacefully at night. I wake up in the morning looking forward to my day.

I make a commitment to leave my apartment and to engage with the world. I return to the the gym and start to work out. I find an affordable counselor and a practitioner to prescribe medication. I begin to re-connect with my friends and find pleasurable activities to do with them. As I do these things, I slowly regain my enthusiasm for life.

I also set a new goal for work. When I am ready, I use my past experience as an executive recruiter to start my own  employment agency. I love my life.

In the following weeks, Dennis read his vision statement daily and asked the group to hold the vision with him. Each week he set a goal to add one new behavior that was stated in his vision. During his check-ins, Dennis reported feeling stronger and closer to his “old self.” At the end of ninety days, Dennis announced that he had connected with some former colleagues and was preparing to launch his new business.

Dennis’s recovery contain all three pillars of my mental health recovery program. He stated his intention to heal and created a clear blueprint of what his healing would look like. He asked for the support of the group and of other people in his life. And he used a combination of healing modalities to treat his symptoms. He demonstrated the truth of the maxim, Intention + tools + support = mental health recovery.

Shortly before his death, Albert Einstein asked the question ‘Is the universe a friendly place?’” For those people who feel trapped in the black hole of depression or any other mental health disorder, I want to say, “Despite the despair you may be feeling, the universe is “friendly” and will respond to your cry for help. I know this to be true, not only from my own experience, but from observing the experience of others. Your sincere desire to be well along with your willingness to ask for support will attract the people, resources, and circumstances to make your recovery a reality.

More information about how to set the intention to heal can be found at:


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. I agree completely about the power of intention. I know from my own experience and observation of my own life that energy does, indeed, follow intention. The more we focus on something, the more real it becomes as a feeling, concept, and eventually, it manifests into physical reality. What’s interesting is that this applies to the negative as well as the positive. So really, we have a choice about where our focused intentions lead us, depending on where we focus our energy. There’s a whole new level of self-awareness that occurs here.

    As I healed from the mess my head and nerves had become due to overwhelming anxiety and rage-making frustration with myself and the mental health community, what I found most challenging in this process was to actually trust the process which ensued from my intention, filled with all sorts of twists and turns, naturally. Betrayal issues can be sticky, and they can create all sorts of fear and illusions as one is healing. I had to let go of control, here, and allow shifts to occur, however that was to happen.

    Learning to trust that the universe is really and truly loving and supportive–that, in essence, it has our backs–can be a tall order when on the heels of the profound betrayal that so many experience going through the diagnostic mental health culture–not to mention, thanks to the core family betrayal issues that are so often flagrant in society at large. For me, this was an life-changing healing process, in and of itself.

    I also found it was important for me to stand in my own truth, regardless of how others reacted to me. Those around me resisted my healing a great deal, as it challenged their self-perception. Navigating this consciously, with the highest and most loving intention, brought me strength and clarity.

    Nice post, thank you.

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  2. Just this morning I attended a meeting where my state said it had implemented a holistic approach. I trust providers will soon adopt the same language much as they did when the state said all care was predicated on Evidence Based Practices, Best Practices, Recovery and then Wellness & Recovery.

    Sadly, words are no substitute for deeds.

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  3. I hope that the state follows through with their holistic approach. But even if they do not, you can apply these holistic tools yourself. You can use the language of wellness and healing to direct your recovery. You can set the intention to heal and draw other resources to you in addition to those of the state.

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  4. As a mental illness recovery coach I brought to the table hope for a full recovery. Something my clients had never been made aware could occur. As I was a ‘mental health consumer’ as well as a successful professional and business person they heard often for the first time that full recovery was possible. Something they never heard from other mental health professionals, quite the opposite. We also used a technique we called ‘positive future forecasting’. We had our clients write a letter to us in detail about their life one year from the date visualizing themselves in a state of health and wellness. As Margaret Wheatley pointed out Vision statements, Mission Statements create invisible force fields drawing us towards them. Thank you for your work.

    Wendy Dixon

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    • Thanks for sharing your experience. It is always good to hear of other people who are experiencing success with these universal principles. The vision statement of wellness is a tool that should be implemented by mental health professionals. It is cheap, effective, and empowers clients to take charge of their own recovery.

      P.S. Is Margaret Wheatly the writer and management consultant who studies organizational behavior?

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      • Yes I was introduced to her while taking my Master’s Degree in Leadership at Royal Roads University in Victoria B.C. She has written many books but my favorite remains ‘Leadership and the New Science; Discovering Order in a Chaotic World’. I also love Adam Kahane’s work on transformative scenario planning. Builds on the concepts you are talking about. His most recent book was called ‘Power and Love’. If you are not familiar with him check him out on youtube. He has a few shorts.

        Wendy Dixon

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  5. I find the this article slightly worrying. It completely removes social context.

    My intentions change according to who I am around and what kind of people are in my life – ie my work, my friends, family and relationships.

    There is plenty of research that says racism, poverty and homophobia contribute to, “Mental illness.” Ignoring these and saying to people it’s their intention that matters could easily slip into blaming people who are distressed for their malaise.

    Put me in a supportive gay community and I’m fine. Out of it I tend to be distressed and struggle a fair bit. Give me a steady income and I feel better than when I am worrying about the bills. It doesn’t matter too much whether I have

    Soteria house worked on the principle of very distressed people living with very supportive people. Open Dialogue goes into peoples houses and works with their families to try to turn then into understanding and supportive networks. They do it for every day for a week or so because it takes that long to build the trust before any serious changes can be made.

    I can go to a support group and feel fine for a few hours afterwards but then if I’m living a grotty life I slide down again and feel almost as bad by next weeks meeting.

    There is a bit of research on depressed married women that shows that if you want to know if they will get better ask them if their husbands are supportive. If they say yes they are likely to recover.

    Yes, asking people what they want to do with their lives and asking them to make small steps towards it is a good coaching tool. Asking them to do it repeatedly is also good. But for many this will be insufficient and saying it is the answer could easily result in people with mental distress blaming themselves, or people trying to help them blaming them. Something I have seen far too often, in fact it’s institutional in the mental health field

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  6. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I would like to clarify that the vision statement is not a panacea for depression recovery. If there are external circumstances that are getting in the way of recovery, those need to be addressed. However, the vision statement can lay the groundwork and provide the motivation for making such a change. The person might say, “I set the intention to overcome this limiting circumstance” and then take the action to change it.

    I agree with you very much about support being a critical factor for good mental health. In fact, I wrote about this topic in my previous blog, “We Are Meant to Heal in Community.” Here is the link to the post:

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  7. Douglas, I think your post is important and accurate. Also would recommend the link at the end of your post . It is very clear.
    I have learned a healing system based on intention that works on 6 different levels,spiritual,psychic,mental,emotional,physical,and psychological. It’s called Yuen Method and was developed by Kam Yuen a 35th generation Shaolin from northern China. It’s amazing.
    I found this helpful quote in a book called The Composition of Foods “Press On” “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; Nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not ; Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education alone will not; The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. ” Another quote that helped me by a man named Bolles “You’ve got to know what it is that you want , or somewhere along the way someone may sell you a bill of goods, harness you to their will , and do irreparable damage to your self esteem. ” One of the deadliest causes and or contributing cause to the darkest of moods in at least 1 out of 6 people who have them are so called silver amalgam dental fillings which are over 50% mercury the second deadliest element to human health on the periodic table .Just depends on how many you have ,how large they are and how efficient your body is at excreting mercury. By the way medical doctors use mercury compounds in some of their vaccinations and other invasions of the human body like the Flu shot. They give them to children without a second thought. Anyways ,Thank You

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