Recovery from Depression: What Does it Mean?

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The term "recovery" is bandied about so much with respect to mental disorders that, in my opinion, it has lost any real meaning. Many depression sufferers say that they aspire to the goal of recovery but what does that mean exactly? In this post I am going to explore the many meanings of "recovery" and I hope to generate a discussion of what recovery means to you.

I have to admit that I have a rather jaded and skeptical perspective of the word recovery based upon my own life experiences. I have a mother with schizophrenia, a child with autism and I have Multiple Sclerosis and depression. I am a prime target for anyone who wishes to sell me a cure for what ails me and my family. I have been told countless stories of how children with autism who never spoke a word suddenly say "mama" for the first time if they just (substitute the latest cure from special supplements to spending time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber). My symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis are promised to disappear after I implement bee venom therapy. And all my mom needs is a good body cleansing combined with a special diet to rid her of schizophrenia.

Uh huh. Sure. Meanwhile back at the ranch"real life goes on.

My saturation with cures and tales of "amazing recovery" has reached its fill. I am currently reading a book called SHAM written by author Steve Salerno. In it Salerno discusses how the self-help movement has made America helpless. In the land of quick fixes we are suddenly relying more upon self help gurus, life coaches, and motivational speakers than upon our own common sense. He also talks about how the Recovery Movement has eradicated any sense of personal responsibility. I believe he makes some good solid points.

Look at the books that sell the most at the bookstore. These include the "ten easy ways" books. People don't want to read about acceptance, hard work, or compromise. Whether it is about losing weight, dealing with relationship problems, or coping with a medical or mental illness, we want a speedy and easy remedy. We cannot fathom that there is no cure for some things. We want it all or nothing. It reminds me of the part in Willy Wonka where spoiled little Veruca Salt who stomps her feet and demands, "I want an Oompah Loompah NOW"

Now before you wag your finger at me and call me a Pessimistic Polly, I do believe that a certain kind of recovery is possible with regard to depression. It absolutely is possible to feel better, to laugh again, to want to get up and do things, to pursue goals, and feel joy and satisfaction from living. It is also possible to be free of many of the clinical symptoms of depression. If I didn't believe these things I would not be here. But I will never sugar coat things and tell you that there is some easy way to achieve this.

Let's step aside from my highly subjective views and discuss what we can learn from mental health experts as well as from patients who have experienced recovery.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness provides an educational resource called Understanding Major Depression and Recovery.   In it they state some facts about depression including:

  • Approximately 15 million Americans will have an episode of major depression this year.

  • More than one-half of those who experience a single episode of depression will continue to have episodes that occur as frequently as once or even twice a year.

  • Major depression may require long-term treatment to keep symptoms from returning just like any other chronic medical illness.

  • For some, biological depression is a life-long condition in which periods of wellness alternate with recurrences of illness.

  • More than one-half of people who experience a first episode of depression will have at least one other episode in their lives. After two episodes, the chances of having a third episode are even greater.

So it becomes clear that for a lot of folks, depression can be a chronic illness. Does this mean you will never be happy again? No. But it does mean that you will have to work hard to keep your depression symptoms at bay. Sometimes it becomes more about management of your illness rather than focusing upon a cure. Even people who have recovered from depression will tell you that you still must be diligent about maintaining wellness.

Probably the most realistic and straightforward reminder comes from our Deborah Gray who gives advice for those who have crossed that line into recovery from depression:

Not to be a wet blanket, but there are a couple of things that you should keep in mind. One is that you can't get complacent about your depression treatment. The other is that you should focus some attention on preventing the depression from recurring.

If your treatment includes medications this is an important factor to consider in maintaining wellness. Here is an interesting statistic from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance:

An estimated 50% of unsuccessful treatment for depression is due to medical non-compliance. Patients stop taking their medication too soon due to unacceptable side effects, financial factors, fears of addiction and/or short-term improvement of symptoms, leading them to believe that continuing treatment is unnecessary.

Some of you have expressed worry if you will be taking medications forever. The answer to this is unclear and highly individualistic. But it does seem that stopping medication treatment too early on, may place you more at risk for a relapse of a depressive episode. Recovery doesn't always mean a total cessation of all treatments. A broader definition may be more realistic for many depression sufferers.

In attempting to research "recovery" in operational terms I really could not find any standard definition. I have seen the term "remission" used to mean something similar but for a limited period of time.

The questions I have about recovery include:

  • Does recovery from depression mean that the individual never experiences any symptoms of depression ever again?

  • Is recovery defined by only the absence of depressive symptoms or is it also defined by a greater optimism, self-confidence, and feelings of happiness?

  • How long does one have to be free of depression symptoms before one can say they have achieved recovery?

  • Is recovery merely a term to describe on-going maintenance of a successful treatment plan?

  • If one is recovered from depression can one stop all treatments and not fear a recurrence of symptoms?

Lots of questions and I am not sure there are any set answers to any of these.

The one thing I am sure about is that the recovery process can be both long and difficult. Two of our writers, Deborah Gray and John-Folk Williams have both explored what recovery means to them. At the bottom of this post are some links to their stories which I hope you will read. Neither writer has any magic methods to share nor any miracle cures to promote. What I have learned from reading about their journeys is that the process of recovery is highly individualistic and it is not achieved overnight. It is not a passive thing where something happens to you. Both writers describe an active on-going process where they had to work each and every day to get to a place of mental health and wellness. Their stories give us hope that we too can climb out of the depths of depression and feel happy again.

How about you? How would you define "recovery"? Is this something you aspire to? If you do consider yourself recovered from depression, how did you do it? Share your experience. We want to hear it!


  • John-Folk Williams writes about his personal experience in achieving recovery from depression in his two part series.

Finding a Mindset for Recovery-1

Finding a Mindset for Recovery-2

  • Our Deborah Gray also has talked about her own recovery process from the depths of depression.

Recovery from Depression Part One

Recovery from Depression Part Two