Stages of mental health recovery

Sean Jackson
Author: Sean Jackson Medical Reviewer: Morgan Blair Last updated:

Recovery from mental illness takes patience, time, and support. Though the recovery process is a personal and unique experience, there are common stages individuals may goes through in their mental health recovery.

Stages of mental health recovery

What is mental health recovery?

Mental health recovery means different things to different people. Depending on a person’s unique story and struggle, the process can be longer or shorter. Mental health struggles caused by situational distress, such as loss of a loved one may be a shorter process than healing from childhood abuse that continued for years. However, it is important to remember there is no set timeline for people recovering from mental illness.[1]

Recovery can also be clinical or personal. You might think of a clinical recovery as living symptom-free. A personal recovery might be your journey of self-acceptance or self-actualization. Ultimately, though, recovery generally represents living a more mentally healthy life.[2]

What are the 5 stages of mental health recovery?

As mentioned earlier, everyone’s recovery experience is different. However, some recovery systems follow a five-stage plan that helps break down the different elements of the recovery process. Each of these general stages is outlined below.

Acceptance/Starting Treatment

The first stage of recovery in mental health is simply recognizing and accepting that there is a problem.[3] The point at which this realization is made differs from one person to the next. You might understand that something isn’t right and seek treatment before your mental health condition worsens.

However, many people may not realize there is an issue until their mental health has significantly deteriorated. It might be hard to ask for help or even believe others when they say you need help. Therefore, this stage of mental health recovery can be challenging for some people.

But, once you realize you need help and are willing to seek help, starting treatment completes the first stage. Therapy comes in many different forms – individual counseling, couples or family counseling, group counseling, and support groups are just a few options.

Education/Insight

The next of the 5 stages of mental health recovery is education/insight. The first component of this is to learn about what’s going on with your mental health. A mental health professional can help you do this by assessing you, diagnosing you, and discussing their findings with you.

It’s important to remember that having a mental health diagnosis isn’t a label meant to shame you. Instead, it’s a tool for your therapist (and you) to gain insight into the situation. Many mental health conditions can be confusing; a diagnosis can help you sift through that confusion and gain insights into why you feel the way you feel and behave the way you behave. With better understanding comes an increased ability to make positive changes.

Action/Changing

Taking action and making positive changes occurs next in the process of recovery from mental health issues. Now that you have some insights into your situation, you can make an action plan to further your recovery.

For example, let’s assume you’ve been diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder and that you learned about your triggers for consuming alcohol in therapy. The next step is to make changes to your life that minimize the likelihood that you drink.

So, if one of your triggers is being around friends who drink, your action plan might involve avoiding social situations when others are drinking. If another one of your triggers to drink is anger, you might utilize coping strategies learned in therapy to deal with your anger in a healthy way instead of turning to alcohol to cope.

Finding New Meaning/Building a New Life

Recovery in mental health requires finding new meaning in life and building toward a future that focuses on that meaning. For example, you may have a renewed interest in focusing on your family and friends. You might also find a new job or a new opportunity to volunteer.

Whatever the case, filling your life with meaningful activities will help you continue your recovery. It also enables you to build resilience – relying more on yourself once equipped to do so builds independence, feelings of self-worth, and the confidence to continue moving forward.[4]

Continuing Recovery/Treatment

Recovery is a process and not necessarily something that has an endpoint. This does not mean, however, that you have to be in treatment for the rest of your life. Treatment is just one component of a more extensive process.

As outlined in the previous steps, your recovery involves accepting your situation, learning about your condition, and taking action to build a new and better life. These steps put you in a position to continue your recovery even after treatment has ended by relying on the knowledge and skills you’ve gained in therapy.  

For example, your treatment might involve cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which focuses on identifying and changing negative thought patterns for improved behavioral outcomes. One of the techniques often used to do this is role-playing.

Let’s say you have a social anxiety disorder. Your therapist might use role-playing to help you practice social interactions in a safe and supportive environment. These role-playing sessions can help you gain confidence, lessen your anxiety, and give you tangible tools to rely on as you continue your recovery after treatment.

How long does mental health recovery take?

There is no way to quantify how long mental health recovery takes because it differs for everyone. On the one hand, a minor mental health issue might be resolved in a matter of weeks or months. On the other hand, serious psychiatric disorders present lifelong difficulties and might require years of treatment.

As noted earlier, recovery is a process with no specific end date. Recovery from mental health issues requires a solid commitment to continue learning, growing, and becoming more mentally healthy.

Where to find help with mental health recovery

Many reliable, helpful resources are available to you on your mental health recovery journey. Websites like this one offer insights and easy access to information that can help get your recovery underway. Local mental health clinics, community mental health centers, and clinicians in private practice are good resources for the psychological health services you need as well.

Other resources you can consult include the following:

Resources
  1. Mental Health Foundation. (2021, September 15). Recovery. Retrieved July 23, 2023, from https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/explore-mental-health/a-z-topics/recovery
  2. Rethink Mental Illness. (n.d.). Recovery and mental illness. Retrieved July 23, 2023, from https://www.rethink.org/advice-and-information/living-with-mental-illness/treatment-and-support/recovery-and-mental-illness/
  3. Metcalf, M. (2019, November 1). My path to accepting mental illness. Retrieved July 23, 2023, from https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/November-2019/My-Path-to-Accepting-Mental-Illness
  4. Jacob, K.S. (2015, April-June). Recovery model of mental illness: a complementary approach to psychiatric care. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 37(2):117-9. Retrieved July 23, 2023, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4418239/
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Sean Jackson
Author Sean Jackson Writer

Sean Jackson serves as our expert medical writer with over 25 years of experience, dedicated to empowering every reader we serve.

Published: Sep 11th 2023, Last edited: Sep 22nd 2023

Morgan Blair
Medical Reviewer Morgan Blair MA, LPCC

Meet Morgan Blair, our accomplished medical reviewer. Morgan is a licensed therapist with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling from Northwestern University.

Content reviewed by a medical professional. Last reviewed: Sep 11th 2023