The Recovery Model

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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 and 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.

10 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
  • Home
  • Purpose
  • Community

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

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 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:

We envision a future when everyone with a mental illness will recover, a future when mental illnesses can be prevented or cured, a future when mental illnesses are detected early, and a future when everyone with a mental illness at any stage of life has access to effective treatment and supports…

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.

My bet is that the best changes will come from the clients themselves.

Further Reading

For an official overview of the principles of the recovery model, I highly recommend this brochure.

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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