Originating from the civil rights movement, the use of the recovery concept in mental health emerged as deinstitutionalization resulted in more individuals living in the community. It gained impetus as a social movement due to a perceived failure by services and wider society to adequately support social inclusion, and by studies demonstrating that recovery is possible for anyone. A recovery approach has now been explicitly adopted as the guiding principle of mental health policies in a number of countries and states. In many cases practical steps are being taken to base services on a recovery model, although a range of obstacles, concerns and criticisms have been raised both by service providers and by recipients of services.

A recovery approach to mental health emphasizes and supports a person's potential for recovery. Recovery is generally seen in this approach as a personal journey rather than a set outcome, and one that may involve developing hope, a secure base and sense of self, supportive relationships, empowerment, social inclusion, coping skills, and meaning. Other names for the concept are recovery model or recovery-oriented practice.