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Mental Health Recovery Arc

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Students from all over the world have gone through exactly the same problem— faced the exact same fears. You're afraid your condition, whatever it may be, is controlling your life by forcing you to come here... But as long as you are acting on fear, you aren't going to make progress. If all you're doing is trying not to get worse, you're not going to get better. Of course this school isn't perfect — none of us are. What's important is that you focus on what we can give you, not what's taken away.
Ela, Missing Stars
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Many people suffer from mental illness. Recovering from it is, more often than not, a long (sometimes lifetime-spanning) and challenging journey, with many illnesses not even having "cures".

In fiction, characters with huge amounts of trauma and mental illness often have arcs where they learn to live with their troubles. Not always, however, does the end result have the character being "fixed" of their illness. They'll often learn how to cope with their illness and make progress, but the arcs often end open-ended with them still having symptoms.

Widespread use of this trope is a relatively recent occurrence thanks to improvements in mental health research and care. Historically, depictions of mental illness and mental illness recovery have been basic and full of misconceptions. The more sensitive and thorough portrayals of the subject greatly differ from the traditional portrayal of The Mentally Disturbed.

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Compare to Coming-of-Age Story, I Am What I Am, In-Universe Catharsis, Sanity Strengthening, and You Are Not Alone. Contrast with Epiphany Therapy.


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • Berserk: The Elfheim arc is about Guts abandoning his quest for vengeance (or putting it on hold) so that he can get Casca to see the king of the elves, in the hopes of restoring her to her pre-Eclipse state (during which she was so traumatized, she now has the intellect of a small child). He himself doesn't participate in the actual recovery since Schierke and Farnese are the only ones who can use astral projection.
  • In Date A Live, Natsumi goes through a very rough one after Shido and friends rescue her from Ellen before her spirit powers are sealed. She thinks her true form is hideous. The arc revolves around getting her to accept herself and her honestly cute appearance, first with a makeover that ends with her having a mild Freak Out over her new, cute appearance (and inability to admit that she likes her new look) and ends with her coming out of Shido's pocket where she was disguised as a lollipop to save the day. Even after her sealing, her mental state is stated to be the weakest of all the spirits, which has the side effect of allowing her access to her powers when sufficiently upset.
  • In Dragon Ball if you squint. The series is about big crazy fights, and characters are often eager for the challenge, but on occasion, usually with the human characters, past fights are brought up and they lose confidence in their ability to help in the current situation. Noticeably in "Super", there is an episode (76-Forest of Terror) where Goku and Krillin go for some special training to help Krillin regain his confidence, and thus fighting spirit. The training ends up being a "Jedi Tree" situation with magical copies of their past opponents, ones they had, and apparently still hold some amount of fear over. The whole episode focuses on Krillin, and we get a "death montage" of all the times he's been killed, as the copies, including forms of his killers, trigger memories. The heroes of course figure out the trick to surviving and winning, and Killin is able to "get over" his past fears, enabling him to move on with his life and training, but it bears mentioning not all the copies were for him. Among the Goku-spawned copies is King Piccolo, Goku's first real problem he faced as a child, and someone Krillin died before having any experience with, that's some decades plus baggage! This episode is the first to really address the long-term impacts facing these villains have on the heroes. It is short and tries to impart a message that fear makes problems bigger, and by overcoming your fear you can overcome your problems, but it's almost never that simple in real life.
  • In My Hero Academia, one of Todoroki's major arcs is getting over his fixation on not using his fire powers out of spite for his abusive father. He's disgusted with himself for even thinking of using it and gains a Thousand-Yard Stare when reminded of the things Endeavor did to him and his mother. Even after Midoriya goads him into going all out at the Sports Festival, Todoroki consistently struggles to use his fire when compared to his ice but goes from being unwilling to stand in the same room as Endeavor to actively seeking him out for an internship to learn from him.
  • In Sword Art Online, the Phantom Bullet arc is largely about Sinon dealing with her PTSD. Her condition is the result of Survivor's Guilt where, as a child, she shot and killed a criminal, leading her to have panic attacks around guns. She starts playing the gun-oriented VRMMO, Gun Gale Online, as a form of immersion therapy. Through the eventual help of Kirito, she manages to overcome her guilt and get past her condition.
  • Inverted in The Garden of Sinners: Shiki had a split personality since birth and was quite well adjusted to it, but then one of her personalities "dies" following a serious brain injury, so she has to adjust to being a regular human with a single personality in her body in the course of the novel.
  • The last few episodes of Zombie Land Saga focus on the reappearance of Sakura's depression after she regains her memories of her life, where her mental health was much worse than the dedicated upbeat zombie the rest of Franchouchou knew. Once the girls continue singing after the roof caves in at their biggest concert yet, she realizes her friends will support her through her failures and starts to recover.

    Comic Books 

    Fan Works 
  • Ashes of the Past: There are segments where Ash uses Aura Purge to help people and Pokemon, work through their issues with a Battle in the Center of the Mind.
  • Child of the Storm has several. Most examples relate to the Forever Red Story Arc in the sequel, and with good reason.
    • For Harry, everything after Forever Red is part of this, with multiple demonstrations that it is not linear - as in, his recovery has definite hiccups, most aptly demonstrated in chapter 60. It doesn't help that most of the Forever Red memories were initially locked away (justifiably, as he just couldn't deal with them at the time), and he accessed them around chapter 42 out of necessity. This leads to a horribly traumatising flashback nightmare in chapter 60 after the events of the previous mini-arc jumped up and down on his Trauma Buttons, with the author noting that recovery from trauma is by no means a linear process.
    • Maddie, also after Forever Red, though mostly for traumas that took place before it than during it - for her, that particular arc was both her proper introduction and her triumphant Heel–Face Turn, if at serious cost.
    • Carol has elements of this dotted throughout her appearances in the sequel - in the first chapter, Harry provides psychic therapy for nightmares related to the events of the first book, and after Bloody Hell, when she's recovering from her Near-Death Experience.
  • Dragon Blade: Toushiro has PTSD from the events of the Winter and Thousand Year Blood Wars. His personal arc revolves around his recovery as he learns to accept his condition (which he is in denial about), accept support from the faculty and students of UA, and learn to live with his PTSD.
  • Dungeon Keeper Ami: There is some focus on Ami and the unwanted mental side-effects of incorporating the memories of a centuries-old Evil Overlord, Malleus, which she gets cured due to a Mind Hug from The Light Gods.
  • A major theme in the Eleutherophobia series is Tom recovering from his Yeerk-induced mental trauma; this is at the forefront of THX 1138, where Tom learns that it has a name (Post-Infestation Affective Blunting Syndrome) and helps some similarly-affected children, and Ghost in the Shell, which revolves around a support group.
  • The Splatoon Dark Fic Her Fractured Spirit deals with Callie's recovery after her trauma from the second game.
  • After a horrendous "nightmare therapy" midway into Arc 2 of Infinity Train: Blossoming Trail, Goh's sanity takes a complete nosedive and the rest of the story is him trying to pick up the pieces...to no avail, as he just decides to let the Infinity Train pick him up.
  • In the Spice Girls / Ace of Base Fic, Just Taken, Melanie finds in two separate hospitals after a fight. The first hospital respected her wishes and didn't go forward the sectioning order against her, as she was already at a place of safety due to her injuries and worked things out, right down to handing the worm infection. Still, Melanie was taken against her wishes to a mental hospital, even after showcasing for injuries.
  • Little Miss Heropants details Lilac suffering from PTSD due to the events of Freedom Planet and trying to recover from it, with Carol helping her out as well as keeping Milla from knowing about it.
  • The arc in Now That You're Bleeding is Elsa starting to recover from her depression and also stop self-injuring.
  • Recovery is one for both Yang and Weiss where Yang recovers from her PTSD while Weiss recovers from her loneliness.
  • RWBY: Scars:
    • A major element of Weiss' character arc is healing herself emotionally and mentally after years of abuse, loneliness, and untreated mental illness.
    • Weiss' mother Willow has been an alcoholic for over 30 years. She decides to go sober after Weiss' suicide attempt shocks her and begins seeing a therapist about her undiagnosed schizophrenia.
    • Yang's character arc involves her recovering from PTSD after losing her arm to an Ursa, as well as her existing abandonment issues.
  • Sunset's Recovery Arc is both about Sunset Shimmer learning to be good and recovering from her depression.
  • Weight of the World: Alfred is put through the wringer throughout the series. He is kidnapped, experimented on, tortured, betrayed, and nearly killed multiple times in gruesome ways. The events slowly wear down on him until he is left with PTSD and depression in The Charlatan of Choice. His friends and family encourage him to keep on going but he struggles with self-doubt, self-loathing, and self-esteem issues. His arc involves him opening up to others, accepting their help, and accepting that he isn't weak for having mental health issues as he rebuilds his sense of self-worth.
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    Films — Animation 
  • The entirety of Finding Dory is about Dory's struggle with her short-term memory loss which she has had to live with for her entire life. While she initially despised it, she eventually learns to work with it and accept it as a part of who she is.
  • Frozen (2013)
    • Elsa's magic that she must hide from the world to spare her reputation is applicable to mental illness (as well as repressed homosexuality, eating disorders, the autism spectrum, etc) - but there is indeed an arc about her learning to cope with the way she is and accept herself before she can function in society.
    • "The Next Right Thing" from the sequel is likewise about Anna still having to go on after Elsa and Olaf's apparent deaths. The lyrics were inspired both by Chris Buck's trauma after his son was killed in a car accident, and Kristen Bell's own depression and anxiety ("the next right thing" is her own personal motivation mantra).

    Films — Live-Action 
  • A Beautiful Mind: John Nash comes to terms with his paranoid schizophrenia over the course of the film, although as there is no cure for it, he continues to live with it by the end.
  • The Marvel Cinematic Universe has dipped into this a couple of times:
    • Iron Man 3 features Tony Stark grappling with anxiety attacks and PTSD after the events of The Avengers. He's achieved a kind of peace by the end of the movie, but still suffers from both conditions, with his anxiety and paranoia in particular causing several problems down the road.
    • Thor's character arc in Avengers: Endgame is about dealing with a mental breakdown, and subsequent depression, caused by the Trauma Conga Line his life's become. When we see him after the Time Skip, he's spent years drinking heavily, becoming obese, rarely leaving his house, and spending most of his time playing video games: the rest of the movie is him working through it.
  • My Name Is Emily is about a suicidal teenage girl with an Ambiguous Disorder somewhat overcoming her trauma and falling in love. A supporting character is her father, who was committed to a mental hospital, and is likewise out of it by the end.
  • Now, Voyager is a 1942 film about a repressed spinster who's had to deal with years of emotional abuse from her mother. At the film's opening, a psychologist is called by her sister and takes her into therapy; the rest of the film is about her trying to readjust to life post-therapy. In the book the film is adapted from, the love interest also had mental health problems but this is relegated to subtext in the finished film. It was based on author Olive Prouty's own experiences after two nervous breakdowns.
  • To the Bone is about a young woman named Ellen attempting to recover from anorexia nervosa.
  • The Snake Pit is about a schizophrenic woman's experience in a 1940s mental hospital. It's based on the autobiography of Mary Jane Ward. The film was revolutionary and led to a marked improvement in mental hospital facilities in the United States.
  • In The Three Faces of Eve a woman goes to a psychologist trying to figure out the cause of her headaches and blackouts. It turns out she has two other personalities but doesn't realize it. The film is loosely based on a 1950s study done on a real woman named Chris Costner-Sizemore.
  • Due to Rule of Symbolism, The Babadook can be seen as this. The movie centers around a widow whose husband died many years ago and shows signs of clinical depression, which stems from her grieving, and from dealing with her young son who seems to have a learning disability and severe behavioral problems, which include acting aggressively and disconnectedly with other children. When the Babadook comes and torments them, their issues become even worse, with the mother eventually becoming possessed and attacking her son, until he reassures that everything will be alright, she then vomits the spirit and works together to imprison it in the basement of their house. When they get a visit from the social workers, the boy seems to be doing better in his new school, and the mother seems to be doing better mentally and socially. Meanwhile, the Babadook is still imprisoned in the basement and though, it tries to re-possess whoever goes down to feed it, it's always cast away, showing that although the Babadook (grief/depression) can never be fully banished, it's best to keep it in check and not let it become the dominant force in their lives.
  • An extremely quick example in Pollyanna (1960). Pollyanna is left without the use of her legs after she falls from the roof of her aunt's house. As she's The Pollyanna, this causes a Despair Event Horizon where her cheerful disposition completely breaks. There is an operation that could allow her to walk again, but the doctor warns that her depression could prevent her from doing even that. Cue the entire town turning up at the house to thank her for how she improved their lives with her 'glad game' - and it ends with her leaving to go and get the operation (the book confirms she does walk again, but the film leaves it open).
  • Sucker Punch is about trauma survivors and sexual assault victims using performance therapy to cope with the abuse they suffer from a corrupt orderly in a Bedlam House. The vivid fantasy action sequences are in fact representations of their imagination.
  • The Dead Center starts out as a stark, unglamorous portrayal of what goes on in an emergency psych ward. At first, psychiatrist Dr. Forrester thinks John Doe just another - if unusual - patient. Aside from the supernatural/horror aspects, the movie portrays this trope with surprising, sobering realism. John Doe is sent to the emergency psych ward because the hospital doctors simply don't know what to do with him. For all they know, he's just some catatonic patient who wandered in and just snuck into a bed. And even in the psych ward, he's no shape to fill out the consent forms. Dr. Forrester secretly - and illegally - admits him into the ward, because he knows John Doe would probably get left to rot in some corner otherwise. And even then, patients can't legally be put under involuntary hold for more than 72 hours. Dr. Forrester resorts to hypnosis after more conventional methods don't work. There often aren't enough medical staff on hand, so sometimes patients go unsupervised, with tragic results. While John Doe eventually remembers things, it's really the demon inside taking complete control and imitating him to be discharged more quickly. The scene of his panicking father coming to pick him up after thinking John had died is exactly how these situations can play out.

    Literature 
  • All for the Game: Neil comes from a physically abusive family, and flees from his father, who is a serial killer. At the start of the series, Neil is deeply depressed. He sees no hope in his future, and believes that it's too dangerous to trust anyone. Gradually, he learns to trust and let others in, making friends with many of his teammates.
  • Best Friends Father by Devon McCormack: Eric suffers from PTSD and works through his trauma, with much help from his lover Jesse.
  • Isaac Asimov's "Breeds There a Man...?": Dr Ralson is the mental patient, a physicist who is Driven to Suicide, but instead of following the story from his perspective, we see the efforts of the people around him to help him overcome the urge to self-harm and continue developing force fields for the American government during the Cold War.
  • Break is about a teenager, Jonah, who is on a mission to break all his bones as a form of self-harm and taking the whole "a broken bone grows back stronger" thing too seriously. His self-destructive spiral worsens and worsens until he's eventually entered into teenage psychiatric care. When he starts getting better, though, he discovers that his deteriorating physical health might get in the way first.
  • In The Case Files of Jeweler Richard, Seigi and Richard both undergo long processes of recovering from PTSD and depression, although Richard's is mostly in backstory.
    • Seigi winds up in anger management therapy after the events of volume six and is still struggling with suicidal ideation by volume ten.
    • Richard wound up on sleeping pills and running off to Sri Lanka after his fiancee broke off their engagement, and slowly pieced himself back together with the help of his mentor, Saul.
    • Henry also has a bit of a recovery arc after the matter of a family Spiteful Will is resolved, as the stress it took on his family has been lifted. This happens mostly off-page.
  • It's Kind of a Funny Story is about Craig, a suicidal teen, who becomes enrolled in an adult psychiatric floor and makes steps towards recovery by the end.
  • Fat Kid Rules the World is about a depressed, friendless obese teenage boy who meets a Kurt Cobain lookalike and joins his band. Over the course of the book, he opens his horizons and becomes more sociable.
  • A large portion of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is Harry dealing with PTSD from witnessing Cedric's death and nearly being killed by Voldemort at the end of the previous year.
  • In The Stormlight Archive, the new Knights Radiant are all marked by trauma. This was necessary for their powers first to manifest, but their growth as Radiants is framed against their Character Development as they learn to cope with their problems.
  • In "Joey: A 'Mechanical Boy'", originally published in The '50s, a boy develops autism because of his refrigerator mother, then gradually reconnects with his emotions and makes a full recovery.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Crazy Ex-Girlfriend:
    • After two and a half seasons of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend playing Rebecca's mental issues for dark comedy, she finally starts putting effort into improving her mental state after surviving a suicide attempt, including getting diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, taking her therapy seriously, going to a support group, and trying to cut romance out of her life — with mixed results.
    • Season 2 opens with the reveal that, immediately after the season 1 finale, Greg was picked up for drunk driving. While a lot of his recovery happened off-screen between seasons, when he reappears he's still in the process of overcoming his alcoholism, and it ultimately leads to him finally making the decision he's known is best for him all along: leaving West Covina to study at Emory. By the time he returns in season 4, he is much healthier and more well-adjusted.
  • Season 7 of Supernatural revolves around mental health issues. Sam, after returning from hell, struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. He has visual and auditory hallucinations of the devil and has trouble differentiating between these hallucinations and reality. He hears voices telling him to kill himself and others. He also has a great deal of trouble sleeping which eventually causes him to break down and end up in a mental facility.
  • Season 6 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer revolves around Buffy suffering and eventually recovering from depression after being brought Back from the Dead and dragged out of heaven in the season premiere.
  • 13 Reasons Why:
    • Season 2 devotes time to Jessica's recovery from her rape at the hands of Bryce, meeting other victims of sexual assault and eventually coming forward about her identity on the tapes.
    • The same season follows Alex's recovery from his failed suicide attempt.

    Video Games 
  • Persona 5: Futaba is shown having great social anxiety and what appears to be PTSD as she experiences visual and auditory hallucinations of her mother blaming her of her death. After the Phantom Thieves deal with the latter, her entire confidant is focused on slowly helping her adjust to people and lessen her agoraphobia.
  • Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is all about the title character learning to cope with her psychosis, rather than being "cured" of it.
  • In the good ending of Disco Elysium, your player character will experience a transcendent moment meeting a giant stick insect, who communicates with him via Inland Empire to inform him that insects worship human beings, for the mental anguish they are capable of feeling and the worlds they can create in their own minds, compared to bugs, which have only the simplest of emotions and no consciousness. After this, your character is more confident, facing revelations of his own backstory with an ironic distance, as if surprised by how trivial his own problems are compared to what his emotions told him they must have been.

    Visual Novels 
  • One of the main story points of Double Homework is the protagonist learning to cope with the PTSD from surviving a disaster that killed his parents and ten other people, while it generated a media storm that vilified him as a "mass murderer."
  • Little Busters! is a Coming-of-Age Story and as such, focuses on the main character Riki recovering from trauma he's been dealing with as a child. When he was young, and before he met the other Little Busters, Riki ended up in a car accident that killed both his parents. He ended up in a state of depression that only stopped when he met the other Little Busters, who became his best friends over the years. However, that created a new problem for Riki, namely that over the years, he became too dependent on Kyousuke and the others bailing him out when things got too tough for him to handle on his own. Combine this with the fact that everyone except him and Rin would've died in a bus explosion, Kyousuke realizes that if nothing is done, Riki will have problems getting by on his own once everyone dies. His Character Development is about him becoming self-reliant so he doesn't need to be bailed out by Kyousuke or anyone else. It's revealed in Refrain that the source of Riki's trauma is the death of his parents when he was younger. He became fearful of losing anyone ever again, so when the Little Busters befriended him, he began clinging to them.
  • Missing Stars starts off with an 18-year old named Erik transferring to a boarding school in Vienna. The school specializes in secondary schoolers with mental health problems. An accident left Erik with PTSD symptoms, which also cause psychosomatic troubles with his legs. Erik's arc deals with recovering from the accident. His love interests also have similar arcs.
  • The main plot of Toradora! Portable, the visual novel based on the light novel and more focused on the anime version made for PSP, is about Ryuuji Takasu awakening from a coma and having Identity Amnesia, all of this after being rejected by Minori Kushieda in Christmas night and staying outside until the dawn, in the middle of snow. The game is about Ryuuji discovering who is he and what he did with his life with the help of his friends Taiga Aisaka and Yuusaku Kitamura, the Official Couple and Heterosexual Life-Partner respectively.

    Web Animation 
  • Yang's character arc in Volume 4 of RWBY focuses on her trying to recover after a string of traumatic events in the previous volume left her suffering from PTSD and depression. She ultimately manages to come to terms with her issues, though the following volume shows that she still occasionally suffers from tremors.
    • Both Blake and Weiss have series-long arcs dealing with recovering from their abusive pasts. Weiss has to deal with her feelings of family and legacy due to her abusive father tainting both, and often expresses it as being cold, rude, and easily angered, while Blake has to deal with her dedication to Faunus rights and her ability to form relationships after her abusive boyfriend turned a peaceful advocacy group into a terrorist organization and dragged her along with it, which expresses itself in crippling self-image issues and a tendency to run from her problems. Both have to realize they were abused, learn to avoid the The Chain of Harm, confront their abusers on multiple occasions (at first being unable to do anything, then slowly building up their courage and resolve with the help of their friends), finally defeat them, then have to deal with the fallout after they're gone and learn to rebuild their identity without letting their pasts to define them.

    Western Animation 
  • Mental illness and trauma are a major theme for BoJack Horseman:
    • BoJack's character journey has him come to terms with his childhood trauma and unhealthy coping mechanisms, especially when his self-loathing and nihilism ruin his relationships with others. The main lesson for him to learn is that he can't fix everything from the past, but he can keep moving forward. By the final season, he's gone through rehab, but his ruined career led to an alcoholic binge, a Bungled Suicide, and a break-in that lands him in prison. However, even though he'll never fully get rid of his mental illness, he knows there can be good days ahead if he tries for them.
    • Diane's poor mental health was always a subtle aspect of her character, but her explicit struggle with depression becomes a major arc in the final season. After struggling to write her memoirs, she goes on antidepressants despite her initial reluctance. This leaves her happier, but seemingly unable to write a book about her trauma because she feels "too happy." Eventually she realizes she doesn't need to suffer for her art and instead writes a series of upbeat mystery novels for tween girls.
  • Downplayed in My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. One multi-season arc of Twilight Sparkle revolves around her learning to deal with her anxiety.
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Zuko's entire character arc is this trope. His arc is a realistic depiction of a person who suffers from tremendous physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his abusive father and his sister and his long-winded journey towards recovery.
  • The fourth season of The Legend of Korra revolves around Korra getting back on her feet after the traumatic events of the season 3 finale that caused her to develop post-traumatic stress symptoms and self-esteem issues.
  • South Park: The two-parter "You're Getting Old" and "Ass Burgers" tells the story of Stan's depression, symbolized as him seeing everything around him as literal shit, which is exacerbated by Kyle leaving him due to his cynical nature and his parents divorcing. After being misdiagnosed with Asperger's, he meets with a secret group who reveal to him the cynical truth of the world, getting him hooked on alcohol in the process. Near the end of the episode, Stan quits drinking and decides to accept change instead of being afraid of it... only for everything to return back to normal in the blink of an eye. The episode ends with Stan taking a drink of whiskey before returning to his friends.

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