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/