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Recovery International at 75: The Effectiveness of a Little Known Program

(We are pleased to publish this guest post by Marilyn Schmitt, Ph.D., on the 75th anniversary of Recovery International.)

In 1937, a movement began to be shaped that would improve the lives of many thousands of people suffering from mental and nervous disorders.  The movement became a group-based training protocol developed by a Chicago neuropsychiatrist, Abraham Low, M.D.  In the heyday of Freudian psychoanalysis, Low saw his patients in the University of Illinois Psychiatric Research Hospital discharged and returning in a revolving door of relapse.  He began to experiment with tools that would train them to manage their symptoms and develop resistance to the illness.  And he founded an “association of patients,” choosing the word “Recovery” as its name.  Today its name is Recovery International.

Fifteen years after that beginning, in 1952, the program was complete:  a group-based, peer-led cognitive behavioral training program that has enabled tens of thousands of sufferers from mental and nervous disorders to achieve peaceful, productive, and normal lives.  Today, with hundreds of weekly group meetings across North America and abroad, led without required fee by trained volunteer former sufferers, Recovery International is the “best kept secret” in the psychotherapeutic world.

The Recovery International System uses highly structured meetings in which participants describe a disturbing everyday event, their reaction to it, and their coping strategy, ending with acknowledgement of their improvement compared to the past.  The group then comments on the story using the principles, concepts, and language established by Abraham Low.  This deceptively simple format continually restructures the thinking and behavior of each individual at whatever pace that person can achieve.  Readings and other resources reinforce this “getting well” process.  Between-meeting practice of the principles is constantly stressed.

The Department of Psychiatry of the University of Illinois-Chicago has just concluded a study of 126 participants, most with long-standing serious disorders, attending Recovery International meetings.  The study concludes that after one year of attendance, most subjects experienced significant reductions of depressive and anxiety symptoms as well as decreased domination by symptoms.  They were using fewer mental health and social services, displayed increased coping skills, self-esteem, and feelings of hope.  The more meetings they attended, the more benefit they experienced.  (See the report at www.lowselfhelpsystems.org.)

In a 1973 issue of Psychiatric News, Karl Menninger publicly expressed regret that he had not paid attention to Recovery International.  He spoke of “legions of people whose lives were saved or fulfilled by” this self-help organization.   How many more legions have been saved since then, and yet the Low System remains a secret to the vast majority of mental health professionals and the public.

As Recovery International celebrates is 75th anniversary in 2012, it is time for that disregard to come to an end, for consumers and professionals alike.  The Low System, as delivered in Recovery International meetings, offers a time-tested, broad-based, low-cost – and now verified – benefit to those suffering from mental and nervous disorders.  Learn more about Recovery International and other Low System-based programs at www.lowselfhelpsystems.org.