The Recovery Model

A group therapy session.
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The recovery model is a holistic, person-centered approach to mental health care. The model has quickly gained momentum over the past decade and is becoming the standard model of mental health care.

This model is based on two simple premises:

  1. It is possible to recover from a mental health condition
  2. The most effective recovery is patient-directed

If you’re receiving mental health services or have a loved one with a mental health condition, knowing the basic tenants of this model can help you advocate for the best care. The framework can give you language to use that will resonate with caregivers when describing gaps in your service. Your input may be invaluable in helping mental health care providers shift toward the values outlined by this model.

Recovery Is Possible

As the name of the model implies, the hallmark principle is the belief that people can recover from mental illness to lead full, satisfying lives. Until the mid-seventies, many practitioners believed that patients with mental health conditions were doomed to live with their illness and would not be able to contribute to society, particularly, those individuals with schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, and bipolar disorder. However, several long-term studies, from several countries came out in the mid-seventies showing this to be false.

Change Has Been Grassroots

Often sound evidence is not enough to change systems. It took two decades for this basic belief to gain traction in the medical community. The change came about largely through patients self-advocating for their involvement in treatment. As well as showing through lived experience that, given the proper supports, they could live active lives in the community.

The history of the movement reflects another basic tenant of the recovery model; the most lasting change happens when the patient directs it.

Characteristic of the Recovery Model

The model takes a holistic view of a person’s life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has outlined four dimensions to consider when supporting someone in recovery:

  • Health: In order to manage or recovery from mental illness, people must make choices that support both their physical and mental well-being.
  • Home: People need a safe and supportive home environment.
  • Purpose: Having meaningful daily routines such as school, work, family, and community participation are important during the recovery process and for maintaining wellness.
  • Community: Supportive social relationships provide people with the love, emotional availability, and respect that they need to survive and thrive.

Principles of Treatment

SAMHSA also defines ten guiding principles which recovery treatment is based on. Every institution that operates according to the recovery model should be striving to incorporate these into their care.

  • Self-directed
  • Individualized and person-centered
  • Empowerment
  • Holistic
  • Nonlinear
  • Strengths-based
  • Peer support
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Hope

In particular, the recovery model stresses the importance of connectedness and social supports. When people have supportive relationships that offer unconditional love, they are better able to cope with the symptoms of their illness and work toward recovery.

Psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, and other health professionals can provide such support to a certain degree, but other connections offered from friends, family, and other peers are also critical. Support groups and community organizations can help fulfill this need as well.

The National Push for Recovery

By 2003, the individuals who had been advocating for recovery-based care found their work paying off. A mental health commission, ordered by George W. Bush, gave the final report of its work and made recovery-based care a national priority. The vision set forth in this final report was ambitious, possible, and worth repeating. The report envisioned a future that focused on the prevention, early detection, and cure of mental illness.

Over a decade later, the concept of the recovery model is familiar to most mental health practitioners. But individuals are still working out how to design programs and treatments based on these principles.

Recovery Model vs. the Medical Model

The recovery model of mental illness is often contrasted against what is known as the medical model. The medical model posits that mental disorders have physiological causes, so the focus on treatment is often on the use of medications.

While the two models are often presented as being in opposition to one another, researchers have suggested that the two are complementary and can be used together during the treatment process. The medical model ensures that biological causes are fully addressed and that people receive the medication-based treatments that they need, while the recovery model ensures that patients are able to be directly involved in their own treatment.

The medical model is rooted in utilizing treatments that are based on empirical research, but the recovery model offers the personal empowerment and peer support that people need to cope with their illness and work toward getting better.

One of the major strengths of the recovery model is that it focuses on individual strengths and abilities rather than on deficits and pathologies. It places trust in the individual to know their own experience and to be able to take an active role in their treatment.

A number of programs, including the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) and the NAMI Family-to-Family program, incorporate both medical and recovery models and have research backing their effectiveness.

Further Reading

For an in-depth look at the recovery movement, the American Psychological Association has 15 learning modules that are accessible to the public. The topics range from a broad overview of the recovery model to ways it is being implemented in practice. 

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Article Sources

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