What’s the Recovery Model in Mental Health?

Medically approved by
Dr Earim Chaudry
Last updated
30th March 2022

In 30 seconds

The recovery model in mental health is not simply about surviving with a diagnosis — but finding purpose, connection, and fulfilment through it. Rather than simply responding to symptoms, this perspective offers a comprehensive outlook that aims to take patients beyond the back-footedness of survival, and into the agency of a meaningful life. It takes into account the patient’s unique, subjective experience and incorporates that into their treatment plan. 

If you are struggling with mental health issues, you are not simply a collection of symptoms. You are an individual who requires meaning and hope in your life. The recovery model bases treatment on this concept.

The road to recovery from serious mental health illness is not a linear one. Symptomatic treatment can result in a vicious cycle where psychological distress diminishes for a period of time and then returns soon after. 

As a result, it’s common to experience frustration as you navigate the path to healing, feeling as though you are in a state of survival rather than recovery. 

What’s more, the recovery journey looks different for different people. There is no one-size-fits-all model that applies to everyone with severe mental illness. As this study explains, even coming up with one definition of “recovery” is tricky. 

To provide individualised treatment, support services are acknowledging the diversity of experiences that exist.

And that’s where the recovery model steps in. 

This concept of recovery is not simply about treating symptoms, but rather about offering a more holistic approach to healing and empowerment. It is founded on the idea that recovery from mental health conditions is possible. 

What is the difference between a recovery model and a medical model of mental health?

The medical model involves psychiatrists prescribing medication as treatment to address the biological causes of mental health conditions. This approach focuses primarily on drugs that interact with the chemicals and circuitry within the brain and nervous system.

The recovery model, on the other hand, places the patient and their experience at the centre of their own mental health care. It’s an integrated, dynamic approach that changes with the ever-evolving needs of the patient. It is now informing approaches to psychiatry all over the world.

Advocates of the recovery model explain that the promises of psychiatric interventions have often failed to materialise. Even with developments in drug-based therapies, treatments that rely solely on antidepressant and/or antipsychotic medications can come with some challenging side effects and may not be sufficient on their own to get people living fulfilling lives.

The recovery model emerged from the 1970s service users’ movement, initially in the United States, but soon branching into the UK and other countries. It is a framework that does not attempt to diminish those living with mental illness, but rather advocates for them to exist with dignity within the communities of which they are a part. 

For this recovery approach to happen, there has to be collaboration between all elements of the mental health system — patients, medical workers, and community organisations. 

Recovery colleges are now offered by the NHS that provide various mental health services, including support groups, therapy, and mindfulness training. 

What are the principles of the recovery model?

In the recovery model, you are not simply trying to survive by treading the water of your illness. You are, with support and assistance, swimming to the shore.  

The aim of the recovery model is to get patients to a point where they can live healthy, productive lives, in a sustainable way. 

Its focus is on:

  • building resilience to cope with the challenges of mental illness
  • validating personal experience
  • cultivating strategies for when challenges arise, and
  • improving quality of life.

What are the 10 recovery principles?

According to the American Psychological Association, the 10 Guiding principles of the recovery model are that it is:

  1. Based on hope. Recovery is possible. Meaning is possible. Overcoming stigma is possible. Fuelling the recovery model is this belief in overcoming current challenges to reach your full potential. 
  1. Self-directed. Together with mental health service providers that provide treatment and coping strategies, you direct and design your path to your personal recovery. Self-management strategies can be more attractive to users, leaving them with a greater sense of agency and decision making in their treatment. 

The recovery model also acknowledges the differences between care for physical and mental afflictions. As this study explains, approaches to psychological recovery are not easily transferable from physical health settings and need to be configured with that in mind. 

  1. Highly personalised. Crucial to the recovery model is the understanding that no two journeys are alike. Part of this is understanding that we all come from different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. We all have different strengths and challenges, and we all have different resources that we can draw upon. 

For many, recovery may not be a linear process. It may involve a number of setbacks along the way. Community and healthcare workers integrate this knowledge into the care they provide, understanding that some people may require different kinds of support to others.

  1. Holistic. While we refer to it as a “mental health” recovery model, there are many aspects to this framework. It requires carers to look at the whole person, in all their physical, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. This may include everything from ensuring that they have the medication that they need, to securing housing, employment, and education, to providing avenues for self-care and creative expression. All of these node points should be integrated into a conceptual framework of complete care  to support recovery.
  1. Based on ally and peer support. Fostering deep connections with those who have similar struggles can play a vital role in cultivating meaning and support. Helping one another is vital when it comes to deepening one’s sense of purpose.
  1. Supported by social networks. Encouragement from the relationships that surround you are instrumental in providing encouragement, support and an all-important sense of belonging. This may come from family and friends, religious groups, community organisations, or cultural bodies. 
  1. Culturally-based. We all come from different backgrounds that inform our values and beliefs. Recovery should take this into account. Rather than be imposed on us, recovery services should take into account the deeply personal histories that make us up.
  1. Trauma informed. PTSD, generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), and clinical depression are just some of the public health consequences of experiencing trauma. In addition to this, high rates of drug dependence are found amongst those who have suffered traumatic events. All of this can lead to instability when it comes to housing, employment, and community life.

As a result, mental health professionals in the recovery model address underlying trauma such as domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse, and war, through creating services and support where this can be acknowledged and addressed.

  1. Community driven. While the recovery model relies on self-direction, it’s also important that community support provides the framework through which this can happen. Discrimination can get in the way of meaningful recovery. As a result, it’s important that platforms are created to support social inclusion for those struggling with mental illness. 
  1. Based on dignity and respect. Respect for one’s self and respect from one’s community are vital. If you are suffering from mental health challenges such as low self-esteem, accessing this within oneself may be really challenging. Through supportive frameworks, a holistic approach to healing, and the acknowledgement that no two journeys are alike, it is possible. 

Key Takeaways

The recovery model in mental health centres the experience of the individual to create a holistic, supported framework for healing from mental disorders. 

It takes into account the social, historical, and cultural experiences of the person in recovery, and acknowledges that no two journeys are alike. It aims to create dignity, hope, and respect for those who are suffering with mental health issues and ultimately serves as a springboard to a life of meaning, stability and purpose.


What are the 5 core elements of the recovery model?

The Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP) was created by mental health recovery advocate Mary Ellen Copeland and is now integrated into various services offered by the Department of Health in the UK. Its five core principles are:

  1. Hope
  2. Personal responsibility
  3. Education
  4. Self-advocacy
  5. Support

It’s intended to foster a combination of personal agency and support so that those suffering with mental health problems can inform their own recovery while at the same time feel held on their journey. 

What are the 3 stages of recovery?

Because trauma-informed responses are a key element of the recovery model, it’s important to understand the stages of trauma recovery.

Trauma can cause disempowerment and disconnection from others. That’s why the stages of recovery include:

  1. Establishing safety
  2. Retelling the story of the traumatic event
  3. Reconnecting with others
While we've ensured that everything you read on the Health Centre is medically reviewed and approved, information presented here is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. It should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns, please talk to your doctor.

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