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What is "recovery"?

What helps people in the process of recovery?

Strategies for Recovery

What is "recovery"?

People define recovery from mental illness in their own individual ways. Some people think of it as a process, while others think of it as a goal or an end result.

Here are some examples of how different people describe recovery from their own point of view:

  • "Recovery from mental illness is not like recovery from the flu. It's recovering your life and your identity."
  • "Recovery for me is having good relationships and feeling connected. It's being able to enjoy my life."
  • "I don't dwell on the past. I'm focusing on my future."
  • "Being more independent is an important part of my recovery process."
  • "Not having symptoms any more is my definition of recovery."
  • "Recovery for me is a series of steps. Sometimes the steps are small, like fixing lunch, taking a walk, following my daily routine. Small steps add up."
  • "Having a mental illness is part of my life, but not the center of my life."
  • "Recovery is about having confidence and self-esteem. I have something positive to offer the world."

For children and families, many of the same descriptions would apply. In addition, recovery is about helping children to return to a normal developmental pathway and to develop resiliency, helping them to be successful in school and in having friends and other activities in their lives. For families, recovery includes having a community of support, both informal supports like friends, neighbors and extended family but also connection to formal supports like schools, health centers and faith communities. See Recovery for children and youth for more information.

What helps people in the process of recovery?

People use a variety of different strategies to help themselves in the recovery process, such as the following:

  • Becoming involved in self-help programs
  • Staying active
  • Developing a support system
  • Maintaining physical health
  • Being aware of the environment and how it affects you
  • Making time for leisure and recreation
  • Creativity
  • Spirituality
  • Following through with treatment choices

Strategies for Recovery

What's important to you? What goals would you like to pursue?

Most people in the process of recovery report that it is important to establish and pursue goals, whether the goals are small or large. However, experiencing psychiatric symptoms can take up a great deal of your time and energy. Sometimes this can make it difficult to participate in activities or even to figure out what you would like to do.

It may be helpful to take some time to review what's important to you as an individual, what you want to accomplish and what you want your life to be like. The following questions may be helpful:

  • What kind of friendships would you like to have?
  • What would you like to do with your spare time?
  • What kind of hobbies or sports or activities would you like to participate in?
  • What kind of work (paid or volunteer) would you like to be doing?
  • Are there any classes you would like to take?
  • What kind of close relationship would you like to have?
  • What kind of living situation would you like to have?
  • Would you like to change your financial situation?
  • How would you like to express your creativity?
  • What kind of relationships would you like with your family?
  • What kind of spiritual community would you like to belong to?

It may also be helpful to think about the following questions:

  • Which areas of life do I feel most satisfied with?
  • Which areas of life do I feel least satisfied with?
  • What would I like to change?

You might find it helpful to set goals for yourself in one or two areas of your life that you are not satisfied with. For example, if you are not satisfied with having enough enjoyable activities, it might be a good idea to set a goal of identifying some activities and scheduling time to try them out.

Setting goals

People who are most effective at getting what they want usually set clear goals for themselves and plan step-by-step what they are going to do.

The following suggestions may be helpful:

  • Break down large goals into smaller, more manageable ones.
  • Start with short-term goals that are relatively modest and that are likely to be achieved.
  • Focus on one goal at a time.
  • Get support in working on goals; other people's ideas and participation can make a big difference.
  • Don't be discouraged if it takes longer than you think to accomplish a goal; this is very common.
  • If you first attempt to achieve a goal doesn't work, don't lose heart and give up. Keep trying other strategies until you find something that works. As the saying goes, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again!"

Planning steps for achieving goals

You may find it helpful to follow a step-by-step method, such as the following, for achieving goals. This method can also be used to solve problems, as described in the article "Coping with Problems and Symptoms."

  1. Define the goal you would like to accomplish. Be as specific as possible.
  2. List at least 3 possible ways to achieve the goal.
  3. For each possibility, briefly evaluate its advantages (the pros) and disadvantages (the cons) for achieving your goal.
  4. Choose the best way to achieve your goal. Be as practical as possible.
  5. Plan the steps for carrying out your decision. Think about: Who will be involved? What step will each person do? What is the time frame? What resources are needed? What problems might come up and how could they be overcome?
  6. Set a date for evaluating how well your plan is working. First focus on the positive: What has been accomplished? What went well? Then look at whether your goal has been achieved. If it hasn't been achieved, decide whether to revise your plan or try another one.

Contact Information for Information about Self-Help Organizations

Consumer Organization and Networking Technical Assistance Center (CONTAC)
800-598-8847.
CONTAC provides technical assistance to adults with psychiatric disability throughout the U.S.

U.S. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association (USPRA)
USPRA is a nonprofit organization committed to promoting, supporting and strengthening community-based psychosocial rehabilitation services and resources. It also publishes a journal, newsletters, and a resource catalogue.

International Association of Psychosocial Rehabilitation Services (IAPSRS)
410-730-7190
IAPSRS is a nonprofit organization committed to promoting, supporting and strengthening community-based psychosocial rehabilitation services and
resources. It also publishes a journal, newsletters, and a resource catalogue.

Mental Illness Education Project (MIEP)
800-343-5540
The Mental Illness Education Project seeks to improve understanding of mental illness through the production of video-based programs for use by people with psychiatric conditions, their families, mental health mental health workers, administrators, and educators, as well as the general public.

Mental Health Recovery
802-254-2092
Mary Ellen Copeland has developed a number of publications and programs for helping people in the recovery process, including the Wellness Recovery Action Plan (WRAP). Her web site offers a free newsletter and articles and a list of publications and workshops that can be purchased.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
800-950-NAMI (helpline)
NAMI is a support and advocacy organization of consumers, families and friends of people with mental illness. It provides educational about severe brain disorders, supports increased funding for research and advocates for adequate health insurance, housing, rehabilitation and jobs for people with psychiatric disabilities. Each state has a chapter and many communities have their own chapters. They offer a consumer-led educational program called "Peer-to-Peer."

National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association (NDMA)
NDMA is a membership organization that provides direct support services to people with psychiatric symptoms and their families, legislation and public policy advocacy, litigation to prevent discrimination, public education, and technical assistance to local affiliates.

National Empowerment Center (NEC)
NEC is an award-winning provider of mental health information, programs and materials, with a focus on recovery. It can refer you to a local support group or help you to set up a new group. Newsletter and audio-visual materials are also available.

National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH)
NIMH is engaged in research for better understanding, more effective treatment and eventually prevention of mental disorders. Its website provides educational materials and an excellent list of free publications on psychiatric disorders, including a comprehensive listing of resources for help.

National Mental Health Association (NMHA)
The NMHA provides information and referral services for people in the process of recovery.

National Mental Health Consumers' Self-help Clearinghouse
This organization provides information about psychiatric disorders, technical support for existing or newly starting self-help groups, and a free quarterly newsletter for consumers. They sponsor an annual conference. Spanish language services are available.

Resource Center to Address Discrimination and Stigma
1-800-540-0320
This SAMHSA-funded center provides resources and information to help people implement and operate programs and campaigns to reduce the stigma of mental illness.

SAMHSA Center for Mental Health Services
800-789-CMHS
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA) provides a large variety of free (or very inexpensive) publications and videotapes about mental illness and effective treatment.


This article is adapted from the Illness Management and Recovery Workbook, an Evidence-Based Practice, available on the Substance Abuse, Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, a branch of the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

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