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What Are the Characteristics of a Person Who has Recovered from Mental Illness?

By Daniel Fisher, M.D., Ph.D.

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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.

Comparison of a Person with Schizophrenia and
a Person who has Recovered

By Daniel Fisher, M.D., Ph.D.

  Person with
Person who has Recovered
from Schizophrenia
Decision Making Professionals need to make major decisions = dependent Capable of making decisions for oneself = Self-determining
Major Social
Mental health system provides social supports Network of friends provides major supports
Social Role/Identity Consumer, a schizophrenic, or mental patient Person who is a worker, parent, student or other role
Role of Medication Considered a requirement One tool among many chosen by the individual
Emotional Intelligence Strong emotions are symptoms to be treated by a professional, not learning communication on this level Person expresses and works through emotions by self or with friends, learning to communicate on that level
Global Assessment of Functioning
Score of 60 or below: untrained person would describe labeled person as sick Score of 61 or above: untrained person would describe the recovered person as not sick (normal)
Sense of Self Weak, defined by people in authority, little sense of a future, little inner direction Strong, defined from within and by peer interactions, strong sense of purpose and a future

*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.