Defining Recovery in Mental Health Care 

Defining Recovery Dr. Monica Slubicki

What is recovery when it comes to mental health? 

The term recovery is used often in mental health care and substance use treatment these days, but what does it actually mean? There is no consensus on the answer, but we can examine some of the ways it is used.   

In mental health care, the answer is not entirely straightforward, in part because the very definition of the term implies an individual journey, with each person creating their own meaning. However, many mental health advocates look to the broad, working definition provided by SAMHSA. This definition was created in 2010 after bringing together a wide group of leaders, including those with lived experience. 

SAMHSA’s Definition of Recovery

SAMHSA’s working definition of recovery is: A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential. 

SAMHSA lists 10 guiding principles of recovery on their website with an emphasis on holistic care.  

Evolution of the Recovery Movement 

The recovery movement has evolved to challenge the principles of mainstream medicine and psychiatry. Previously, individuals felt they did not have a voice in their own care with traditional medicine focusing on symptoms, cures, and doctor-directed treatment.   

Today, in mental health care, recovery does not mean symptom-free nor does it require engagement in treatment.  

Many evidence-based treatments/interventions can meet recovery criteria when utilized correctly. These include:  

3 Characteristics of Recovery-Oriented Care in Mental Health Treatment 

Dr.  Mark Ragins, a leading expert, lists three characteristics of recovery-oriented care as it relates to mental health treatment: 

  1. Person-centered instead of illness-centered (Is this about rebuilding the client’s whole life, not just prescribing medication for illness?) 
  1. Client-driven instead of professionally-driven (The client’s goals need to drive the process, and the client engages in shared decision-making and collaboration with the professional) 
  1. Strengths-based instead of deficits-based (What are the client’s strengths, what do they bring to their care, instead of what’s wrong and what needs to be fixed?) 

Many of these ideas also apply to the substance use treatment community. However, in the past, being in recovery also included abstinence from substances, along with skill-building, decision-making, life change, other treatment, and addressing other mental health difficulties. 

Today, harm reduction includes a more holistic approach to mental health treatment, incorporating strategies to improve well-being and decrease the negative consequences of substance use.

Recovery can mean any positive change, from safer substance use practices to abstinence and everything in between. 

Abstinence as well as harm reduction are both viewed as pathways to recovery. Healthcare providers, community support, family, medication, and other tools also support individuals in their journey. 

Recovery is not necessarily linear.  

This is important for clients and providers to understand. It is also important to acknowledge that practicing high-quality, evidence-based recovery-oriented mental health and substance use treatment care can be challenging for providers who may not always have the same goals as their clients, especially if they are used to the traditional medical model. 

By using periods of wellness to discuss treatment, support, skills, and preferences, clients and providers can navigate more challenging times together. 

Monica Slubicki

Dr. Monica Slubicki

Dr. Slubicki received her medical degree from UNC Chapel Hill and completed her psychiatry residency at Duke University, where she was a Chief Resident. She has extensive psychiatry experience and has worked at Central Regional Hospital for the past several years. She believes in comprehensive, evidence-based, compassionate, strengths-based, patient-focused, high-quality solutions for our community.

Dr. Slubicki joined SouthLight’s team of provider’s as a psychiatrist for the ACT Team in September 2023.

If you or someone you know is grappling with substance use addiction, help is within reach. Learn how SouthLight can guide you toward a path of healing, recovery, and renewal. Learn about all of SouthLight’s substance use and mental health services.  


“SAMHSA’S Working Definition of Recovery: 10 Guiding Principles of Recovery,” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA), 2012,  

Mark Ragins, MD, “What does the recovery model look like today?” National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Greater Los Angeles County via YouTube, 9 April 2012, 

International Mental Health Collaborating Network (IMHCN), “History of Recovery Movement,” IMHCN, accessed December 12, 2023.