The Wellness Model versus the Disease Model of Recovery

The Disease Model tells us the problem; the Wellness Model emphasizes the solution.

Establishing new parameters of wellness in mental health calls for nothing less than a reformation of thought and concept. In 2004, the World Health Organization (WHO, 2004) began promoting the advantages of a wellness over disease perspective, declaring health, “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (Slade, 2010, p. 1). The World Psychiatric Association has aligned with the wellness model, submitting that “the promotion of well-being is among the goals of the mental health system” (Schrank et al., 2014, p. 98). Wellbeing has become a central focus of international policy (Slade, 2010). Concurrently, some psychological approaches have become bellwethers for research and study of the positive character strengths that facilitate the motivation and persistence/perseverance helpful to persons with mental illness who aspire towards recovery-remission. Wellbeing must become the central focus of mental health for the simple reason that the disease model has provided grossly insufficient results. As clinical psychologist Kinderman (2014) writes in Scientific American “We need wholesale and radical change, not only in how we understand mental health problems, but also in how we design and commission mental health services” (p. 1). This radical change, however, should not be a dissolution of approaches but an intense review of their efficacy, and repudiation of the one-size-fits-all stance within the mental health community. Certain fundamentals like language, perspective, and diagnosis demand drastic adjustment.

The hurdles are formidable, beginning with a consensus definition of mental illness and its origins. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) abandoned the word neurosis in 1980 but it remains the go-to term in the mental health community. One only needs the American Psychological Association (APA, 2020) definition of neurosis to comprehend the pathographic focus of the disease model. Neurosis is,

any one of a variety of mental disorders characterized by significant anxiety or other distressing emotional symptoms, such as persistent and irrational fears, obsessive thoughts, compulsive acts, dissociative states, and somatic and depressive reactions. The symptoms do not involve gross personality disorganization, total lack of insight, or loss of contact with reality (compare psychosis). In psychoanalysis, neuroses are generally viewed as exaggerated, unconscious methods of coping with internal conflicts and the anxiety they produce. Most of the disorders that used to be called neuroses are now classified as anxiety disorders.

Health experts define mental illness as a “diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder of sufficient duration to meet diagnostic criteria” that can “result in functional impairment which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities” (Salzer et al., 2018, p. 3; SAMSHA, 2017). Any disorder that results in 30 or more days of role impairment at work, home, or in social relationships seriously impacts one’s emotional wellbeing and quality of life. Congress defines serious mental illness as a “functional impairment that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.” The two mental illnesses called psychosis are borderline personality disorder and forms of schizophrenia. Everything else is a neurosis or disorder. 

The pathographic or disease model of mental healthcare has been the modus operandi of society for centuries. Granted, there have been interruptions in the disease perspective philosophically and culturally. However, it has been the overriding psychological perspective for over a century, remerging with Freud and continuing through medical models with insular focuses on biological and neurological origins of mental illness. The chief propagator of the wellness model has been positive psychology which originated with Maslow’s (1943) seminal text on humanism and was legitimatized by Seligman as APA president in 1998. The study and research of the character strengths that generate the motivation and persistence/perseverance of a mentally ill individual in recovery-remission is of enormous benefit to psychology and individual mental health.


APA. (2020). Neurosis. Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.  Accessed 05 April 2020.

Kinderman, P. (2014). Why We Need to Abandon the Disease-Model of Mental Health Care. [Online Article.] Scientific American. 

Maslow, A. (1943). A Theory of Human Motivation. Psychological Review, 50 (4), 370–396 (1943).

Salzer, M. S., Brusilovskiy, E., & Townley, G. (2018). National Estimates of Recovery-Remission from Serious Mental Illness. Psychiatric Services, 69(5) 523-528 (2018).

SAMSHA. (2017).  2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.  (Rockville, MD: SAMHSA. mental%20illness%20(SMI)%20is,or%20more%20major%20life%20activities.

Schrank, B., Brownell, T., Tylee, A., & Slade, M. (2014). Psychology: An Approach to Supporting Recovery in Mental Illness. East Asian Arch Psychiatry, 24, 95-103 (2014).

Slade, M. (2010). Mental illness and well-being: the central importance of positive psychology and recovery approaches. BMC Health Service Research 10 (26), 1-17 (2010). 10(26)

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