The Importance of Purpose in Recovery – An Interview with Dr. Dori Hutchinson, Sc.D.

We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Dori Hutchinson Sc.D. to talk about the importance of purpose when recovering from mental illness. Dr. Hutchinson is the executive director of the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation in Boston, Mass., and has spent the past four decades working to develop innovative community-based, recovery, education and college mental-health programs with strategies and skills that promote valued roles, healing and resiliency to help individuals strive.

Dr. Hutchinson is facilitating our upcoming community-integration workshop, “How Providers Can Help: The Role of Psychiatric Rehabilitation for People Who Live with Serious Mental-Health Conditions’ Quest for Purpose and Meaning,” which will take place in person from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 8, at Boston University. This purpose-focused, community-integration workshop will challenge providers to examine their principles and strategies for helping people who live with serious mental-health conditions and broaden their psychosocial rehabilitation tools to include those that invite and offer activation of hope, a willingness to try and the discovery of new meaning and value.

This workshop is being offered for FREE, and provides participants with the opportunity to earn 3.5 continuing-education credits. For more information and to register, click here:

Could you tell us a little bit about the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation’s thinking regarding the issue of purpose?

Our whole center is founded on the principle of “personhood.” It is essential that we realize that people who live with serious mental illnesses are indeed people, and that they have the same hopes and dreams, rights and responsibilities as anyone else. Unfortunately, our system of care has always diminished their personhood through practices, policies, attitudes, prejudices and discriminatory behaviors, and the prime message that these people have received is that they don’t matter. A sense of purpose is really what helps people thrive in recovery, thus they need to know that they matter–a fact that needs to be externally spoken to them in a variety of ways, not just internally centered. This is true for all human beings. Hope has been diminished over 100 years of mental-health services and treatments; when Bill Anthony founded our center his goal was to make this change. People with serious mental illnesses matter, and they have a right to hope and to live a full life as thriving citizens. As we help people on their personal journey to purpose, we examine their perception of purpose, how to search for purpose and what to do when life throws things in the way of that search.

You talk about hope. You talk about mattering. How do you define purpose? What role does it play in your own life?

I think that the concept of “purpose” has evolved over time. At the center, we go beyond the vernacular of success. In today’s world there is a “success at all costs” kind of mentality that surrounds the idea of purpose. Take college, for example. If you’re going to go to college and pay so much money to go to college, then the expectation is that you better come out with a high-paying job. Unfortunately, there’s no talk about what kind of meaning that gives someone. Does it tap into their values? What’s important to them? What their talents are? What they really want? In all the work that we do at the center, and for me personally, finding “purpose” is about finding something that delivers a deep sense of satisfaction. Something that lets me contribute in a way that makes a difference and something at which I can also be successful. Something that allows me to lead the life I want to live while doing what matters to me. Bill Anthony used to say, “your life isn’t over because you’ve received a diagnosis,” and yet that’s how many people respond. That’s the first kind of knock at our internal perception of purpose, and it comes at people in so many ways.

People are still being trained in provider practices that create an “us vs. them” dynamic, and people pick up on that. And so even our language sends this message that “you’re not capable, you’re less than,” which subsequently diminishes people’s sense of purpose. We certainly see that around work and recovery. It’s usually the consequence of having lived with a sense of self-doubt. One tiny mistake and people go down the rabbit hole and feel like they’ve failed because that’s the message they’ve received. That they are “broken,” that they are not going to be able to do this. You need to live a life of less so that you don’t get stressed.

Can you talk a little bit about the workshop?

Yes. I’m actually really quite excited about this workshop. It is going to be a collaborative workshop with people who are doing the work. We’re going to talk about the framework of psychiatric rehabilitation, which is very different than psychiatric treatment, and how it can be supportive of people’s recovery journeys. We will do this by listening to people who have recovered or are in recovery and what has mattered to then, and then discuss ways to help people move forward with purpose and meaning.

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