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12 Steps to Mental Health Recovery

Updated on October 18, 2011

National Alliance on Mental Illness

For information, referrals, help, and support. 1-800-950 NAMI(6264),

The Twelve Steps

The twelve steps are a spiritual based concept first used by Alcoholics Anonymous to help alcoholics recover and lead healthier lives. All people have issues. Many, such as addiction and mental illness, can be relieved by living these twelve steps. Belief in God or a Higher Power is not necessary for the beginner.

Step 1

We admitted we are powerless over our condition: that our lives had become unmanageable.

Whether or not you have already been diagnosed with a mental illness or just know that something just isn't quite right with you, remember, mental illness is a medical condition, a chemical imbalance of the brain, that is nobodies fault and nobodies weakness. 

This courageous step gets you out of your rock bottom and gives you the hope you need to carry on. It is the swallowing of the pride and admitting you need a hand. It is humbling and helps you begin to see the reality of your situation. You've known for a while now, that something was not quite right. You do things that regular people don't and behave in ways others don't understand. No matter how hard you try, when things are going well, you always do something serious to mess it up. Others think you sabotage your own life. Now is the time to schedule an evaluation with a mental health specialist. A complete facility is the best choice if there is no waiting list because your records will stay there and you can get all your care in the same place.

This step involves introspection. How do you see yourself a year from now? Five years? Ten years? What are your life goals? What do you need to do to reach those goals? What is stopping you? What have you lost because of your behavior? What have you been unable to do?

Write down your answers in a recovery journal.

Your Journal

Oh, how easily we forget, especially when you have a chemical imbalance in your brain. Keep a recovery journal, one that will fit into a file folder or Trapper Keeper at a later date. Write down the questions I pose to you, as well as any you might think of. Write out your answers to each question. Nobody but you will ever see it. Be honest with yourself. Be thorough. Writing down lessons learned will help you remember them and see how you have changed and progressed at a later date.

Step 2

We came to believe that a Power Greater Than Ourselves can restore us to normalcy.

For those who believe in God, or His equivalent, this is the time to work on your relationship with Him. You will find it comforting and rewarding if you have a loving and forgiving God. Prayer and church attendance is encouraged and can spread out the support we all need.

Do you believe in God? Do you believe your God loves you and wants to see you happy? Does your God want to care for you as a father would? Has your God ever let you down? If you thinks so, is it possible that you misunderstood His plans for you?

For all people dealing with mental illness and personality disorders, their "Higher Power" is also their treatment team: their doctor, therapist, support group and BFF. There must be complete trust in the treatment team for treatment to work. If there are any trust issues, NOW is the time to look elsewhere.

Do you trust your doctor? Do you feel like you can tell your therapist anything without judgment? Do you have a sister or BFF you can vent your everyday frustrations to? Do you have support from your family? If not, is there anything that you can do to change that? Where else can you find support?

Medication Reminders

Being a sufferer (someday a survivor) of Bipolar Disorder, I used to find it difficult remembering to take my medicine as directed. My condition severely affects my memory and my pride didn't help. Who wants to admit a defect and take medicine every day for the rest of their lives?

I realized the importance of my medication after my third misdemeanor arrest over something stupid. I was court ordered to seek medical care for my condition and after several months, and a clearer mind, I realized that my life CAN be better.

Yet, I still could not always remember to take my medicine, or whether or not I took my scheduled dose.

I have found a few things to be helpful. I leave my bottles on my dresser, in clear view. When I take my morning dose, I turn them upside down. When I take my evening dose, I turn them back right side up. I also set my cell phone's alarm to remind me when it's time.

For those who need more reminders or "medication organization", there is a new program at This program offers written medication schedules, including pictures of your pills, special instructions and dietary considerations, and refill reminders. You can even receive a text message reminding you to take your meds. The medicine charts come in English or Spanish and in various size print. This resource is absolutely free and can be utilized by us all.

Step 3

Made a decision to turn our care and our lives over to our Higher Power.

This step is designed to give you the relief you need, to turn the problem over to somebody or some being more equipped to handle it. At this point in your recovery, you may not be happy with God, if you do believe. You wonder why He let you be ill. Just remember that there is a reason for everything, whether or not we understand it.

Who will you turn your care and life over to? Why? What do you expect your Higher Power to do? Are you willing to do your work? What do you think your Higher Power expects you to do?

Treatment Plan

For those people with mental illness who seek treatment at a full mental health facility, you will create a treatment plan with a health professional after a complete mental health evaluation. For those who choose to get their medication from a psychiatrist, you will need to create your own treatment plan.

All treatment plans include medication management. Most include individual and group therapy. You will need social support, too.For those with substance abuse or other addiction issues, meetings and a sponsor are imperative. Developing a "relapse prevention plan" and working it should also be in your treatment plan.

The more you do to work your treatment plan, the healthier you become and the better you will feel. Don't quit just because you feel better and don't overtax yourself. Remember that you need a chance every day to relax and regroup.

Step 4

We made a searching and fearless personal inventory of ourselves.

This is an emotional step and should not be attempted without the aid of a counselor and/or support group, both if possible. You will need somebody to talk to, because facing the truth about your condition and how it affects others and yourself can be very upsetting. Never approach this step if you have been prescribed medication and haven't been taking it for at least a month. Never approach this step if your moods are not stabilized. Never approach this step until you have developed a strong support system. Do to so can be detrimental to your recovery and possibly your life.

How has your condition affected your ability to maintain gainful employment? How has your condition affected your finances? How has your condition affected your love life? How has your condition affected your friendships? How has your condition affected your family? Has your condition caused you to be arrested? Hospitalized?

What are your strengths? How can you use these to help you get better? What are your weaknesses? How can you diminish their ability to damage your life? What are your goals? How can you use your strengths to reach your goals? What holds you back from achieving your goals? What other areas of your life do you want to approve? How can you go about doing that? What is holding you back?

Answer these questions in your recovery journal. Now is the time to read all you can on your condition, if you haven't done so already. You will be amazed at how much of your problems can be attributed to your condition. You will find that you are not such a bad person after all.

Relapse Prevention Plan

Now that you have done a sufficient amount of soul searching and learning, you will need to develop a Relapse Prevention Plan. This is a list of things you will make a point of doing to keep your old habits and behaviors at bay. Here is an example:

My Relapse Prevention Plan

1. Keep all appointments.

2. Take medication as directed.

3. Open up in therapy.

4. Schedule "alone time" every day.

5. Keep a daily routine.

6. Attend support group weekly at the Abused Women's Shelter.

7. Exercise every other day.

8. Morning meditation.

9. Evening confession and prayers.

This is just an example. Your Relapse Prevention Plan is designed by you (and possibly your counselor) specifically for you. Post it where it will be seem daily and stick to it.

Step 5

Admitted the exact nature of our wrongs.

After admitting to yourself the hurts you've done to others, it is now time to "lighten the load" and admit it to somebody else. This is where your therapist comes in. Open up completely. Your secrets are safe. Your therapist will not judge you.

Never admit your wrongs to somebody who may someday throw them back in your face. This defeats the purpose of this step. If you are not involved in private therapy, then try finding a stranger in a mental health chat room. Choose selectively and stop all contact if your chat buddy becomes judgmental or detrimental to your recovery. If you go this route, change the name of all people involved in your confessions. Above all else, stay safe.

If you are including religion and spirituality in your recovery program and life, a church counselor or a member of the congregation can help you with this step, although a licensed therapist is the best choice.

This is the also the time in a recovery program to confess all your sins to your Higher Power, whatever it may be to you. For the nonbeliever, this would usually be a support group.

As always, document your progress in your recovery journal.

One Result of Untreated Mental Illness


Mental Health Chat, was easy to get into, however there are many good ones available. Choose one that ends in .org. They are run by organizations and are safer. As much as 60% of those who are mentally ill have substance abuse issues. AA, NA, and other 12 step support groups also offer online chat.

Step 6

We are ready to have our character defects removed.

For those with mental health issues, this means becoming completely ready to work your treatment plan and get better. It means loving yourself enough to swear to keep all your appointments, attend all your meetings, and be honest with yourself and your therapist. Your health must be your first priority. You are no use to others until you are well.

For Christians, this is asking God to show you the way. This could be as simple as asking yourself, "What would Jesus do?" in your everyday situations, to guide you into a lifestyle that allows you to grow and thrive.

What do you consider your "Character Defects" (your destructive behaviors)? What are alternate ways to behave? How can you remind yourself to behave in a better way? How can you develop the habit of the better behavior?

EX: One of my character defects is holding in my anger until it explodes into violence. I need to redirect my anger into something more constructive, such as exercise or motivation. I need to keep a journal and write in it every day, to face my anger and let it go. I need to ask God to help me control my anger. I need to take my medicine on schedule. I may need anger management class. I need to talk to my doctor and my counselor about any excessive anger issues, before they get out of control.

Nature Can Nurture

Naples Beach
Naples Beach

Your Own Place

Everybody needs a place of their own to relax and appreciate nature. Respect for nature is a healthy and humbling attitude. Alone time to reflect is important for everybody but especially so for those with special issues.

One of the Most Important Things I Learned in Therapy

Is that we can control our emotions by controlling our thoughts

A Gift From God

not an accident
not an accident

Step 7

Humbly asked our Higher Power to "remove our shortcomings".

For christians and believers, this is self explanatory.

This step also involves working your treatment plan to your full potential and utilizing the support system you built for yourself. Half measures will avail you nothing. Strive for health.

Good luck to you.

Who is your Higher Power? How can your Higher Power help you? Do you believe your HP CAN help you? Do you believe your HP wants to help you? Whether yes or no, how can you be sure?

For Nonbelievers

What is your theory of creation? Do you honestly believe the entire earth and everything in it was created by a single cell mutation, an accident?

Do you know any devout Christians? Are they happy? Why do you think they are happy?

Step 8

We made a list of all the persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

This is a very difficult step, with several parts to it. First, you need to admit your wrongs, all of them, against other people, your whole life. This is not a pretty task. Some of these people have hurt you too. Now is the time for you to work on forgiving others. Nobody is perfect and everybody hurts.

Then, you must be willing to make amends to all that you have wronged, whether or not they hurt you too. In some cases, like restraining orders, making amends would be impossible, face to face. Other people may just not want to see you. Sending flowers or a greeting card, or making a donation or volunteering for their favorite charity may have to be sufficient. In other cases, such as infidelity, admitting and trying to make amends for something that will cause another pain is a definite no-no. Some things will need to be let go.

Get creative on how you make amends and be willing to do it honestly and humbly.

Who have you hurt? Why? Have they hurt you? If so, are you ready to forgive and forget? How can you make amends? What do you hope to gain by making amends?

Candles Can Be Comforting

Just A Reminder!

God creates beauty. You are created by God. That means you are beautiful! 

Coping Skills-Comfort yourself

It's amazing how so many of us are unable to comfort ourselves. I guess when Mom joined Dad in the workforce, nobody had time to teach us. This is where I found support group feedback so important. Finding ways to comfort yourself may take trial and error. Starting some new daily routines is a good place to start. Morning stretches or afternoon tea. A walk after dinner. Daily meditation and prayer. Take good care of yourself. Pay attention to what you eat. Take care in your appearance: you'll get your self respect back. Light some candles. Play some music. Sit in a hot tub. Daydream. Get lost in a book. Lift weights. Find a few things that work for you.

Step 9

Made direct amends to such people except when to do so would injure others.

When done with the right goals and attitudes, this is a very healthy and recovery confirming step that will ease most of the guilt you are feeling. Whenever possible, make amends face to face. Only discuss your own wrongs and disreguard any wrongs done to you. You will be amazed at how many people are willing to try to understand why you hurt them and want to be able to forgive you. If some people continue to hold grudges against you, then let it go. They will only be detrimental to your health and recovery.

In your journal, decide how you will make amends to all the people you have harmed. Push yourself with creativity. Let the people you make amends to know that you are serious enough to have put some thought into it.

Laugh Like A Child

Learn To Laugh Like A Child

We all know the physical and emotional benefits of laughter, but we forget how important it is when we are struggling with emotional or mental health issues. Try to find a couple of good laughs a day. Watch your favorite sit-com. Spend more time with people who make you laugh. Visit a comedy club. Read the funnies. Learn some jokes. Learn to enjoy life again, a laugh at a time.

Step 10

We continued to take a personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

This step is to help you continue your personal growth and improve your relationship with others. Introspection is important, not only to recover from mental illness or addiction, but for all people. Healthy people are not afraid to face themselves.

This step also includes monitoring your progress and learning to recognize your triggers and signals that your condition may be improving or worsening. If you are doing something wrong, you should see it during this step.

Are you staying on top of your appointments? How is this affecting your mental health? Are you opening up completely in therapy? How is this affecting your treatment? What triggers your negative behaviors? Who do you trust? Why? Have you treated others the way you want to be treated? If not, why not?

Love Yourself

If you can't love yourself, you can't be affective in your love for others. You can't respect others if you don't respect yourself.

Take care of yourself. Eat well, get plenty of rest, exercise and reward yourself for accomplishments. Working your treatment plan is an accomplishment and should be rewarded. Go out for lunch after therapy. Splurge on yourself after completing each step. Invite a few people from group to meet for coffee and pie.

Remember that ugly pet you brought home that day? The ragamuffin you took care of and learned to love? You can do the same for yourself. We learn to love what we care for, so take care of yourself.

Step 11

Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only of knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry it out.

There is no getting around spirituality in this point of your recovery. We came from Somewhere. The complexity of this world is enough to prove to most that we were created intentionally, not mutated from an abnormal cell division.

This shouldn't be a problem when you reach this point in your recovery. Your head is clearer. Your heart is opening. Your moods are under control. Yet, you feel as if you are missing something. That "something" is God, as you understand Him.

Pray and meditate. He will speak to you if you are willing to listen. You can memorize the entire Bible, but until you pray and listen, You will not know His personal plans for you.

Do you believe in God? Do you believe He has plans for you? Are you willing to follow His plans instead of your own? What do you believe His ultimate goal for you is?

Goals-A Sign of Mental Health

Have you ever known a person who was emotionally and mentally healthy and didn't have goals? If so, then they aren't as healthy as they appear to be. One of the first things a good counselor will look for is whether or not you have goals. Without goals, you have no positive reason to get out of bed in the morning. Healthy goals is a sign of good mental health.

Step 12

We use what we have learned to help others.

Helping others helps keep things in perspective, boosts confidence and builds self esteem. There are quite a few ways to help others. Listen and give positive feedback and support in group therapy and support groups. Tell your story for others to learn from. Set a good example. Offer a ride to someone who needs one. Offer to spend recreational time with a fellow sufferer/survivor. If you are leary of personal relationships with other sufferers/survivors (and you will need to work on that), volunteer opportunities are everywhere. Walk dogs for the Humane Society. Care for horses at the local special needs equestrian program. Walk for Autism. Even when you quit support group, you will need to spread your love. Try a variety of volunteer opportunities until you find one that you can enjoy.

Don't Give Up!

Don't get frustrated. Don't expect overnight miracles and don't expect instant perfection. It will take trial and error and a bit of time for your life to get back on track.

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

A good, hard workout will drastically increase the endorphins (feel good chemicals) in your brain, giving you a natural feeling of euphoria, or "runners' high". For those people that can't get a "good, hard workout", any exercise will do. Break a sweat and relieve stress while feeling good about yourself. Exercise improves mood and increases self esteem. The long term affects on your health is an additional benefit that will continue to boost your mood and your self esteem, as well as your self image, as long as you continue to do it.

It needn't be tedious. Kill two birds with one stone. Play with your kids, your spouse, your dog. Ride a bike to run errands. Clean up the yard or start spring cleaning.

Have fun exercising. Go dancing. Play pool. Jump on a trampoline. Go bowling. Take your family swimming or hiking. Make the most of the body you have and have fun with it.

Try It Now

No matter what your issues, living the 12 step way of life can give you a healthier, happier and more comfortable relationships and life. So, try it today. You have nothing to lose and much to gain. Above all else, take care of yourself.


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Wow. Reading this was incredible. I liked the way you put thinks into perspective with honesty.

      Excellent read!!



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