What is mental health recovery?

The recovery movement is fairly young: it started in the 1990s when people suffering from mental illness, who are prone to negative experiences with mental health services, believed in a better way and demanded better care. They did not believe that individuals who suffered from mental illness were doomed to a sad and isolated life.

Progressive clinicians and researchers, such as Larry Davidson at Yale University, William Anthony at Boston University and Robert Drake at Dartmouth Medical School, joined them in their cause.

This began a new tradition to marshal evidence, which in turn led to the publication of watershed books and scientific articles, such as Elyn Saks’ The Center Cannot Hold, Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, and Cupcake Brown’s A Piece of Cake.

Policy makers began taking notice of both the evidence and advocacy efforts of the recovery movement and started building more effective recovery-oriented services.

Many definitions

Recovery from mental illness has been largely described by people with lived experience with mental health problems. One widely used definition of recovery is the one from William Anthony:

… a deeply personal, unique process of changing one’s attitudes, values, feeling, goals, skills and/or roles. It is a way of living a satisfying, hopeful and contributing life, even with the limitations caused by illness. Recovery involves the development of new meaning and purpose in one’s life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effect of mental illness.

For Patricia Deegan, one of the first consumer-survivors to write about her lived experience of recovery from schizophrenia, building personhood separate from mental illness is crucial, because “once you and the illness become one, then there is no one left inside of you to take on the work of recovering.”

Myra Piat, researcher at the Douglas, ha
s been studying mental health recovery since 2000. years. Her studies have explored the experiences and views of consumers, professionals and decision makers on recovery. People with lived experience describe two contrasting meanings of recovery.

  • Recovery is linked to illness: it means a cure, returning to my former self and depends on medication.
  • Recovery is linked to wellness: it means taking charge of life, evolving toward a new self and it is a process.

In another study, researchers Rob Whitley and Robert Drake report five dimensions of recovery:

  • Clinical (remission of symptoms)
  • Functional (having a job, living independently)
  • Social (reconnecting with family and friends, having a sense of belonging)
  • Physical (better health, good diet and exercise)
  • Existential (sense of purpose, meaning, hope or spiritual belonging)

Mini-Psych School videos

The recovery movement (2009) Former participants of Mini-Psych School talk about their experience
The Recovery movement: a 2009 lecture by Myra Piat– Part 1
The Recovery movement: a 2009 lecture by Myra Piat– Part 1
Participants of the 2009 Mini-Psych School talk about their experience
Participants of the 2009 Mini-Psych School talk about their experience

Watch other Mini-Psych School lectures.

Elements of recovery

Recovery does not mean “clinical recovery” or cure. Personal recovery is about an on-going lifelong process of building a life beyond the illness in the same manner as people suffering from other chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma.

For Boardman, there are three crucial elements to personal recovery:

  1. Hope: is a central aspect of recovery, as recovery is impossible without hope; if you cannot see the possibility of a decent future for yourself, then what is the point of trying?
  2. Taking control of your life: over your own problems, your life and your future.
  3. Opportunity: to be included and participate in society, to be a valued member of society, to have access to opportunities and to have the opportunity to contribute to society.

Some of the elements in recovery include hope, personal responsibility, self-advocacy, a regain in control over one’s life, wellness, education, and peer support. Other aspects highlighted by consumer-survivors are acceptance, empowerment, self-determination, symptom control and a supportive psychiatric relationship.

For many recovery researchers and advocates, it is ultimately up to each person to define what recovery is, and these individual definitions will not necessarily include the disappearance of symptoms; they could involve diverse factors such as having a job, living in a nice home, owning a dog or seeing friends.

[Recovery: what is it?] [Recovery in clinical services] [Recovery stories]