Our Views

Blog #2 ‘Recovery’ as a semantic problem – is it all just in a word?

It must be acknowledged at the outset that there is a semantic problem with the word ‘recovery’. It has a well-established common meaning, viz. (the process of) …. ‘returning to a normal state of health, mind or strength’ and this is how it has been used in the context of mental health. However, it also has a number of associated meanings based on underlying implications which may – or may not – be shared and made explicit. This can lead to a passionate debate simply based on different understandings of the word and a failure to clarify terms. This conversation sometimes seems pretty hopeless and not going anywhere. Unless we can agree what we mean by ‘recovery’, maybe we should simply abandon the word altogether and seek some new semantics?

We would not be alone in this conclusion. For example, I was struck recently re-reading the experience of Mary O’Hagan in New Zealand who says, “I was one of a small team of service users who wrote the recovery content in the Mental Health Commission’s Blueprint for Mental Health Services in New Zealand. We debated at length about whether to use the term ‘recovery’ or not. If we had been able to agree on another word we would have jumped for it. It was thus partly by default that recovery found its way into our policy and discourse”.

That is exactly how many of us thought at the beginning of ImROC. Mary O’Hagan’s solution was to suggest a new definition of recovery as ‘the individual and social processes that ensure people with ongoing or episodic mental health problems can live well’. This is much better – and simpler – and accords with an even shorter definition given to us by a service user at one of our Learning Sets, ‘Recovery is about helping people live the lives they want to lead’. This is admirably concise and makes it very clear where the control must lie in the support of personal recovery. ImROC would be very happy if this version of recovery were to become widely adopted, but before this is likely to happen, a number of other issues need to be addressed. These are what I will examine next.

1 Concise Oxford Dictionary (1999) Oxford University Press: Oxford
2 O’Hagan, M. (2002) Living Well. Openmind, 118, Nov/Dec., 16-17. [N.B. I am grateful to Rachel Perkins for bringing this paper to my attention].