Principles of recovery from substance abuse

Many countries are adopting recovery principles. These principles are more inclusive and accessible than a formal definition of recovery. They fit well with health promotion and social inclusion. The following example comes from Sheedy and Whitter (2009) and is based on 20 years of research and widespread consultation.

There are many pathways to recovery

There are different ways that recovery can occur, from formal treatment to a religious conversion, from attending fellowships to individual, natural recovery. Recovery is a highly personal journey.

Recovery is self-directed and empowering: The service user should be the agent of their own change and development, exercising choices and making decisions to secure their own recovery goals.

Recovery involves a personal recognition of the need for change and transformation: When people enter treatment, they have a strong motivation to change. Abstinence is a goal many service users recognise, set and achieve. It requires a complete change in the way they lead their lives.

Recovery is holistic: The process of recovery is about more than just abstinence. It is about life change that involves addressing the person’s physical, spiritual, emotional, social and mental health needs.

Recovery has cultural dimensions: Many people who are addicted have cultural beliefs and traditions that must be considered in facilitating recovery. They include immigrants, Romanies and Travellers, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, all of whom may experience cultural bias in services.

Recovery exists on a continuum of improved health and wellness: Recovery is about continual growth and improved functioning which involves developing relationships, becoming independent, gaining employment, feeling good, leading a meaningful life, and cultivating wellness in mind and body. 

Recovery emerges from hope and gratitude: People in recovery become models of success. They are change champions who will motivate and influence others, gaining hope and gratitude from those who share their experiences of recovery.

Recovery involves a process of healing and self-redefinition: People are engaged in multiple recoveries, healing the hurt emotions behind drug use and reconstructing a sense of self that together lead to a complete identity transformation.

Recovery involves addressing discrimination and transcending shame and stigma: Drug use is a discredited identity. Recovery means developing access points into mainstream society and a shift in social functioning in pursuit of mainstream activities.

Recovery is supported by peers and allies: New relationships emerge in recovery including new social networks, fellowships and family involvement.

Recovery involves (re)joining and (re)building a life in the community: Recovery creates the conditions for people to move from chaos to control in their lives. They re-join and rebuild their lives both in their own communities and in recovery communities.

Recovery is a reality: There is an emerging evidence base that demonstrates that recovery works. Recovery is contagious!


Sheedy, C. K. and Whitter, M. (2009) Guiding Principles and Elements of Recovery Orientated Systems of Care: What do we know from the research? HHS Publications No. (SMA) 09-4439. Rockville, MD: Centre for Substance Abuse Treatment, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration.