What does ‘Recovery’ mean in mental health?

Recovery means different things to different people. On the 13th September 2019, Recovery in the Bin (1) delivered their keynote talk at the 25th International Mental Health Nursing Research Conference, essentially critiquing the current models of Recovery and seeking change. I’ll let them explain the rest:

“Recovery in the Bin is a user-led critical theorist group, who have spent half a decade at least critiquing recovery and making jokes in order to survive. We are not academics, we are ‘Binners’, and we come from beyond academia, from a mysterious place you may have read about, known as ‘Reality’.‘Anecdotal’ is not a dirty word in our world, and our hierarchy of evidence has lived experience right at the top!”


“Our focus and critique is therefore based on our user-led collective’s experiences, which are grounded in the way recovery is understood, researched and implemented with people who have severe and long-term mental health conditions. We are today’s ‘grassroots’ – the very people from whom the recovery vision originally emerged……..”

“……… So, as mental health nurses and researchers, we ask that you stay true to the original recovery vision. Remember the grassroots, those of us with severe and enduring mental health conditions. Don’t abandon us to neorecovery. By the time Recovery Colleges are crumbling buildings, it will be too late.”

Jacobs (2) suggested; “For many people with mental illness, the concept of recovery is about staying in control of their life rather than the elusive state of return to premorbid level of functioning. Such an approach, which does not focus on full symptom resolution but emphasises resilience and control over problems and life, has been called the recovery model (3,4). The approach argues against just treating or managing symptoms but focusing on building resilience of people with mental illness and supporting those in emotional distress.”

While there is no single definition of the concept of recovery for people with mental health problems, there are guiding principles, which emphasise hope and a strong belief that it is possible for people with mental illness can regain a meaningful life, despite persistent symptoms. Recovery is often referred to as a process, an outlook, a vision, a conceptual framework or a guiding principle.

The following is an article by Rethink Mental Illness (5), which gives their current take on Recovery.


Looking at what it means to recover from a mental illness, this article focuses on personal recovery and suggests different ways that you can help your own recovery. Not everything here will help you to recover from your illness but hopefully it will help you to work out what you find useful.

What is recovery?

There are 2 different meanings for recovery. However, they may overlap. These are:

  • clinical recovery, and
  • personal recovery
Photo: Hillcrest Adolescent treatment centre.

Your doctor might have talked to you about ‘recovery’. Some doctors and health professionals think of recovery as no longer having mental health symptoms. Sometimes this is called ‘clinical recovery’. Dealing with symptoms is important to many people. But we think recovery is much wider; we call it ‘personal recovery.’

Personal recovery means that you are able to live a meaningful life. What you want in your life will be different from what someone else wants to do with their life. Don’t be afraid to think about what you would like to do and work towards that goal.

Below are some ways you can think of recovery:

  • Taking steps to get closer to where you would like to be. For example, you may want a better social life.
  • Building hope for the future. You could change your goals, skills, roles or outlook.

Recovery is an ongoing process. It is normal to have difficulties or setbacks along the way. You could describe yourself as ‘recovered’ at any stage in your recovery if you feel things are better than they were before.

What can help me recover?

You will recover in your own way. There is no right or wrong way, it is personal. Some people call this process a ‘recovery journey’. Think about the following questions:

  • What do I want to have done by this time next year?
  • How can I do it?
  • Do I need support to do it?
  • Who can support me?
Photo: Recoveryconnection.com

Mind believe hope, acceptance, stability, healthy relationships, treatment (either medical or talking therapies and support groups) and healthy lifestyle (which includes good diet, exercise, limited alcohol intake) are a key part of recovery and can help improve your mental health. Low self-esteem and a negative outlook can be a barrier for hope for the future and can be linked to mental illness. Noting similar issues in yourself can be the first step towards building hope.

So, in plain English, what does Recovery mean to you?

  1. Recovery in the Bin, Edwards, B. M., Burgess, R., and Thomas, E. (2019, September). Neorecovery: A survivor led conceptualisation and critique [Transcript]. Keynote presented at the 25th International Mental Health Nursing Research Conference, The Royal College of Nursing, London, UK. https://recoveryinthebin.org/neorecovery-a-survivor-led-conceptualisation-and-critique-mhrn2019/
  2. Jacobs K. Recovery Model of Mental Illness: A Complementary Approach to Psychiatric Care Indian J Psychol Med. 2015 Apr-Jun; 37(2): 117–119.
  3. Ramon S, Healy B, Renouf N. Recovery from mental illness as an emergent concept and practice in Australia and the UK. Int J Soc Psychiatry. 2007;53:108–22. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
  4. Davidson L. Recovery, self management and the expert patient: Changing the culture of mental health from a UK Perspective. J Ment Health. 2005;14:25–35. [Google Scholar]
  5. https://www.rethink.org/advice-and-information/living-with-mental-illness/treatment-and-support/recovery/

Author: mentalhealth360.uk

Mum to two amazing sons. Following recovery from a lengthy psychotic episode, depression, anxiety and anorexia, I decided to train as a Mental Health Nurse and worked successfully in various settings before becoming a Ward Manager. I am a Mental Health First Aid Instructor and a Mental Health Awareness Trainer, Mental Health First Aid Youth and Mental Health Armed Forces Instructor. Just started my mental health from the other side blog.

26 thoughts on “What does ‘Recovery’ mean in mental health?”

  1. Such a fun question! My recovery would be to step out of the shell I live in now. To stretch, take a deep breath and step out of it (for a moment or a day!) . To be able to take some decisions and actions tied to the decisions and then be happy for a small amount of time. To feel happiness that would be a good recovery step for me 🙂

    1. Aaawww Kacha. Like you said – to feel happiness. I knew the exact moment I was on the road to recovery – some years back, one Saturday morning, I’d just dropped my boys off at my aunty’s and as I walked back towards my car, I noticed the sun shining, then I heard birds twittering and noticed flowers in people’s gardens. As I got in and sat at the wheel, I looked around and I ‘felt’ that happiness! What a moment – and I’ll never forget it.

      1. So wonderful, I see it before me and I understand. But I can’t force it? Basically I guess a ‘recovery’ is composed of all small moments when you gain self-esteem and happiness. To set that ‘wheel’ in motion would be the onset, the spark, of recovery. I must say I heard some stories and the sun and birds are often mentioned. Thank you for your helpful post and answer 🙂

  2. Caz, can I ask a dumb question? If somebody has had a mental illness and is considered to be clinically recovered, would recurrence be more or less likely, compared just to Joe Public? Do you know? Not to worry if you don’t, I’m only asking out of interest. Is it a case of, if you’ve been diagnosed once, it is more likely to recur? A lot of this is over my head, but it is a fascinating subject. Thanks.

    1. Hiya, no such thing as a dumb question 😉 Yes, once you’ve had let’s say depression, you are prone to it again possibly. That doesn’t mean that everyone relapses, but it’s possible. I still have depression and anxiety – not all the time but I’m aware I can go into depression quite quickly so the likes of people like me, need to be self-aware, see the signs and either use previous coping techniques, take sleep medication, look after self etc or seek professional help. My sons both know they are prone to anxiety which might lead them to a depression so they ensure they look after both their physical and mental health. I hope that’s answered your question and if anyone else has answers, please feel free to respond. Caz x

      1. And you. Sorry about the secrecy but given some of the subjects I write about, I don’t want key people to be identifiable. Plus, I’m in a small village too, so try only to mention my nearest city. At least having anonymized it, it allows me to write on subjects I wouldn’t otherwise touch.

  3. It tend to use the term remission (either full or partial) to describe the resolution of symptoms of illness. I see recovery as the ongoing individual pursuit of meaning, purpose, and fulfillment within the context of whatever limitations might be imposed by illness. For me, recovery used to mean full remission of my illness, because that was achievable, but that has changed over time.

    1. Thank you, Ashley. That’s a good word – remission. And I love the way you see it i.e ongoing………. whatever limitations might be imposed by illness. What a great explanation and one that I can relate too also. On another note, I’ve just come across a couple of your message in ‘spam’ – not sure why but I’m really sorry – that’s why I haven’t been able to respond to your comments. Thank you for sticking with me, even tho’ it appears like I’ve ignored you 🙂 Caz

      1. I sent an email to WordPress and they responded a couple hours ago saying they changed something (what I have no idea) so that it should be less of an issue now, but I don’t know how much I trust that. The replying on my site may have been because I had a limit on the number of nested comments, but I just changed my setting for that so hopefully it won’t be an issue now.

  4. This post has struck many cords we me. It is very true that recovery can look different for everyone. For me I am not sure if clinical recovery is ever possible. I have kind of faced the fact that I will be on medication for a long time. For me what is more important is a personal recovery. Doing my best to help myself live a life of happiness and value. Using the tools in my toolbox to do this is one of my daily focuses.

    1. Thank you for you comments Lisa. You’re also right – it is different for everyone and as you said, is clinical recovery ever possible? I still take medicine and whenever we get a new Locum GP and they say “oooh, you’ve been medication for a while….. perhaps we should review it?” I tell them “No way, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” I’ll stay on meds forever because – for me- they work (most of the time). That’s it – your toolbox, love it 🙂 C x

  5. I might never achieve remission, especially as I’m still in harmful environments which contribute to my mental unwellness. But recovery for me would be building a meaningful life where I feel fulfilled and have purpose and feel relatively happy in.

  6. I like that “Recovery in the Bin” is reclaiming of “anecdotal.” Clinical recovery is something that can be measured in strict scientific terms, but with personal recover I would say sharing anecdotes can be quite helpful. Stories can show us we’re not alone, give us new ideas, and provide a baseline for what to aim for in recovery.

    To me, the most important aspect of recovery is creating a healthy quality of life. Not just surviving each day but finding ways to enjoy living whether or not symptoms are still present. What that looks like and what limitations are accepted versus challenged will vary between individuals, but I’d like to strive for a standard that’s a bit more than functioning.

    1. Clinical recovery to me is just a targets set by our government, to get people off benefits and into work. Personal recovery is way more differnt and often difficult to attain due to the fact that it means so many different things to different people. And yes, you’re right, one needs a bit more than just functioning.

  7. Recovery for me is being able to get out of bed go to work and do all the small things like shop pay bills, etc. I still have tough days but they are more manageable knowing the good days are possible.

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