I am often asked to describe the characteristics of a person who has recovered from mental illness. Such a description is not supplied by the mental health system because the usual belief in the system is that people do not recover from mental illness. It is timely to come up with a description of the characteristics of person who has recovered because the concept has now gained validity, especially with its appearance in the vision statement of the New Freedom Commission report. The following elements have evolved from our research at the empowerment center, the literature, and numerous focus groups I have conducted in the last 10 years:

Seven Characteristics of a Person Who has Recovered from Mental Illness

  1. Makes their own decisions in collaboration with other supportive people outside the mental health system
  2. Has a meaningful and fulfilling network of friends outside the mental health professionals
  3. Has achieved a major social role/identity other than consumer (such as student, parent, worker)
  4. Medication is one tool among many freely chosen by the individual to assist in their day to day life (used as the chronically normals use medication)
  5. Capable of expressing and understanding emotions to such a degree that the person can cope with severe emotional distress without it interrupting their social role and without them being labeled symptoms
  6. A Global Assessment of Functioning Scale score of greater than 61: “functioning pretty well, some meaningful interpersonal relationships and ‘most untrained people would not consider him sick’ ”
  7. Sense of self is defined by oneself through life experience and interaction with peers

Another way to understand the characteristics of a person who has recovered is by comparing them with a person early in their recovery (those labeled with mental illness) as in the chart below.

PowerEmpowerment vital to recovery because person in distress needs to play an important role in all decisions; person expert in their own lifePower shared by validating the interpersonal reality of the person in distress and by planning only with person in distress present, therapists have expertise but are not expert statusProvider exercises power over the person in distress by labeling person as a diagnosis and making plans for them without them
View of the Person Respecting the value of the person as a full human being, not a category or objectValuing the contribution of the person in distress, which helps the person in distress feel wholePerson reduced to a diagnosis and a set of impersonal chemicals
Nature of the ConcernPerson in distress has lost or not yet found their voice, their sense of self, their purpose, ,their connections at an emotional levelPerson in distress has retreated into monologue relative to their social networkProblem to be solved; chemical imbalance: imbalance of neurotransmitters independent of environment; imbalance to be corrected by medication
Nature of solution to problemRecovery of the person's humanity and participation in community through principles of recovery which can involve medication(Re)establishment of heart-to-heart dialogue with significant persons in their social network, and medication may be a componentRestoration of chemical balance through life-long administration of medications by a professional
FutureBy seeing examples of people who have gone through similar problems and recovered (peers) they regain hopeEven most severe issues seen as being resolved by the network and team of therapistsTruncated future consisting of maintenance on medication under direction of providers

*Global Assessment of Functioning (GAF) is a 100-point tool rating overall psychological, social and occupational functioning of people 18 years of age and older.