The Recovery Model in Mental Health Care

Person-Centered, Holistic Approach

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 and is becoming the standard model of mental health care. It 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 tenets of this model can help you advocate for the best care.

The framework can give you language to use when describing gaps in service. Your input can be invaluable in helping mental health care providers shift toward the values outlined by this model.

The Recovery Model Suggests Recovery Is Possible

The hallmark principle of the recovery model of mental health is the belief that people can recover from mental illness to lead full, satisfying lives. Until the mid-1970s, many practitioners believed that patients with mental health conditions were doomed to live with their illness forever and would not be able to contribute to society.

This belief particularly affected people with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder. However, several long-term studies from several countries, published in the mid-70s, showed this to be false.

The recovery model is used in occupational therapy, a treatment type for both physical and mental health that focuses on the "client-provider partnership" and allows clients to choose what works best for their recovery.

You will also see elements of the recovery model in social work theory, where values such as client self-determination and well-being are emphasized.

What Are Recovery Goals?

The goals of the recovery model include helping people look beyond the limitations of their mental health conditions, encouraging them to strive for and achieve personal ambitions, and inspiring them to create meaningful relationships and personal connections.

The Recovery Model Is Patient-Directed

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 advocating to be involved in their own treatment.

Patients also began showing, through lived experience, that given the proper supports, they could live active lives in the community. The history of the movement reflects the second basic pillar of the recovery model: The most lasting change happens when the patient directs it.

Characteristics of the Recovery Model

The recovery model of mental health takes a holistic view of a person’s life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery from mental disorders and/or substance use disorders as "a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential."

SAMHSA outlines four dimensions that support recovery:

  • Health: In order to manage or recover from mental illness, people must make choices that support both their physical and mental well-being.
  • Home: People need a safe and stable place to live.
  • Purpose: 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.

In particular, the recovery model of mental health stresses the importance of connectedness and social support. 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 connections offered by friends, family, and other peers are also critical. Support groups and community organizations can help fulfill this need as well.

Principles of Treatment

SAMHSA also defines ten guiding principles for recovery treatment. Every institution that operates according to the recovery model should be striving to incorporate these into their care. The 10 core elements of the recovery model are:

  • Emerges from hope
  • Is person-driven
  • Occurs through many pathways
  • Is holistic
  • Is supported by peers and allies
  • Is supported through relationships and social networks
  • Is culturally based and influenced
  • Is supported by addressing trauma
  • Involves individual, family, and community strengths and responsibility
  • Is based on respect

The National Push for Recovery

By 2003, individuals who had been advocating for recovery-based care found their work paying off. A mental health commission appointed by President George W. Bush gave the final report of its work and made recovery-based care a national priority. This final report was ambitious. It envisioned a future that focused on the prevention, early detection, and cure of mental illness.

Today, 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.

For an in-depth look at the recovery model, 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. 

The 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 is often on the use of medications for treatment.

While the two models are often presented as being in opposition to one another, researchers have suggested that they are complementary and can be used together.

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 using treatments that are based on empirical research. The recovery model offers the personal empowerment and peer support that people need to cope with their illness and work toward getting better. A number of programs, including the Wellness Recovery Action Plan and the NAMI Family-to-Family program, incorporate both models and have research to back their effectiveness.

Limitations of the Recovery Model

While there are benefits to creating a unique healing program based on someone's subjective experience of their illness, there are potential drawbacks to using the recovery model.

Because the recovery model is not one consistent program (its components vary based on the client receiving treatment), it can be difficult to measure its outcomes or effectiveness.

In addition, some mental health conditions make it more difficult for a person to participate in guiding their own treatment plan. For instance, some people experiencing psychosis may not view themselves as having a mental illness.

In other cases, a person's symptoms might be so distressing that they require immediate medical attention. In this situation, the person experiencing mental illness cannot contribute to or make suggestions for their healthcare plan until their symptoms are addressed.

A Word From Verywell

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the recovery model in therapy?

    In therapy, the recovery model emphasizes the important of self-determination, responsiblity, hope, and dignity. It sugguests that people can recovery from mental illness and that the goal of therapy is to help people achieve their fullest potential.

  • What is the basic concept of the recovery model?

    The recovery model of mental health focuses on empowering people to make decisions about their own lives and mental health. The core beliefs of this model are that it is possible to recover from mental illness and this recovery should be self-directed.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Malla A, Joober R, Garcia A. Mental illness is like any other medical illness: A critical examination of the statement and its impact on patient care and society. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2015;40(3):147-150. doi:10.1503/jpn.150099

  3. American Occupational Therapy Association. Occupational therapy's role with mental health recovery.

  4. Webber M, Joubert L. Social work and recovery. Br J Soc Work. 2015;45(suppl 1):i1-i8. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bcv125

  5. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Recovery and recovery support.

  6. Hogan MF. The President's New Freedom Commission: Recommendations to transform mental health care in America. Psychiatr Serv. 2003;54(11):1467-1474. doi:10.1176/

  7. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Science meets the human experience: Integrating the medical and recovery models.

By Sarah Lyon, OTR/L
Sarah Lyon, OTR/L, is a board-certified occupational therapist and founder of OT Potential.