Holistic model of health psychology

Deborah C. Escalante

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​At a glance

A holistic approach means to provide support that looks at the whole person, not just their mental health needs. The support should also consider their physical, emotional, social and spiritual wellbeing.

Each person will have a different experience of mental illness and a path to recovery that is influenced by their age, gender, culture, heritage, language, faith, sexual and gender identity, relationship status, life experience and beliefs.

It is important not to assume that how you interpret situations will be the same as the person you are supporting. Listening, asking and checking are key skills to be able to provide a holistic service. A holistic approach focusses on a person’s wellness and not just their illness or condition.


The whole person
This is a link to Pat’s story and his journey to turn his life around.
Type: Web page
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Produced by: Mental Health Commission of NSW

Definition of ‘holistic’
This web page includes a summary of how to respond holistically to a client. Scroll down for a useful case study. In order to access the page, you will need to set up an account.
Type: Web page
Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Produced by: QCOSS Community Door

Respond holistically to client issues
This is a free online training course designed to assist in establishing relationships with clients and responding holistically to their issues. In order to access the training, you will need to set up an account.
Type: eLearning
Produced by: QCOSS Community Door

What is Holistic Health?

Holistic health can be defined as an approach to life instead of focusing on illness or specific parts of the body. It emphasizes the connection of mind, body and heart. The goal is to achieve maximum well-being, where everything functions very best that is possible. It teaches patients to take care of and responsibility for their own health.

Holistic health also means finding ways to get your body; brain and soul solid so you can carry on with the existence you really want living without physical, mental and otherworldly issues keeping you down. Regular exercise, proper nutrition, meditation, paying attention to how you truly feel and developing a mind-body connection are all important aspects of living a holistic approach to health.

It is cost-effective compared to other ones and effective in treating both acute and chronic illnesses. Holistic health practitioners and therapists support the individual in a healthy way of living.

Holistic medicine practitioners firmly believe that the working of all parts of an individual’s body is interdependent and if any one of the parts functions or works improperly, it affects all the other parts. A holistic ‘doctor near me’may use all forms of health care, from conventional medication to alternative therapies, to treat a patient.

For example, if an individual suffering from migraine headaches visits ‘holistic health and wellness centre near me’ then an individual will not walk out solely with medications but ‘holistic medicine doctors near me’ will take a close look at all the potential factors that may be causing the person’s headaches, such as other health problems, diet and sleep habits, stress and personal problems, and preferred spiritual practices.


Holistic medicine is a form of healing that considers the whole person — body, mind, spirit, and emotions — in the quest for optimal health and wellness. According to the holistic medicine philosophy, one can achieve optimal health — the primary goal of holistic medicine practice — by gaining proper balance in life.

Holistic medicine practitioners believe that the whole person is made up of interdependent parts and if one part is not working properly, all the other parts will be affected. In this way, if people have imbalances (physical, emotional, or spiritual) in their lives, it can negatively affect their overall health.

A holistic doctor may use all forms of health care, from conventional medication to alternative therapies, to treat a patient. For example, when a person suffering from migraine headaches pays a visit to a holistic doctor, instead of walking out solely with medications, the doctor will likely take a look at all the potential factors that may be causing the person’s headaches, such as other health problems, diet and sleep habits, stress and personal problems, and preferred spiritual practices. The treatment plan may involve drugs to relieve symptoms, but also lifestyle modifications to help prevent the headaches from recurring.

What is Holistic Health?

Holistic health is an approach to life that considers multidimensional aspects of wellness. It encourages individuals to recognize the whole person: physical, mental, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual. The individual is an active participant in their health decisions and healing processes, including wellness-oriented lifestyle choices. Holistic approaches to health are derived from ancient healing traditions that help to achieve higher levels of wellness and prevent disease. These approaches include use of traditional medical systems, mind-body-spirit interventions, manipulative and body-based approaches, biological based therapies and energy therapies. Most of these approaches are used in combination with each other and with conventional medicine to provide a holistic and integrated approach to health. These traditional holistic approaches focus on the use of food, herbs, supplements, teas, homeopathic remedies, and essential oils as “medicine”. Movement, dancing, singing or chanting, sound and vibration, drumming, prayer, meditation, mindfulness, and touch are examples of activities that are included in holistic approaches. Holistic approaches include but are not limited to: acupuncture, acupressure, biofeedback, massage therapy, chiropractic physicians, manual therapy, naturopathic physicians, meditation, guided imagery, yoga, therapeutic touch, reiki and other energy therapies, and ayurveda. On campus, the interest and enthusiasm for this inclusive and multidimensional approach to health and wellness has resulted in the development of a concentration in Holistic and Integrative health within the Health Promotion Studies major at WCSU.

The recovery model is a holistic, person-centered approach to mental health care. The model has quickly gained momentum and is becoming the standard model of mental health care. It is based on two simple premises:

  1. It is possible to recover from a mental health condition.
  2. The most effective recovery is patient-directed.

If you’re receiving mental health services or have a loved one with a mental health condition, knowing the basic tenets of this model can help you advocate for the best care.

The framework can give you language to use when describing gaps in service. Your input can be invaluable in helping mental health care providers shift toward the values outlined by this model.

Recovery Is Possible

The hallmark principle of the recovery model is the belief that people can recover from mental illness to lead full, satisfying lives. Until the mid-1970s, many practitioners believed that patients with mental health conditions were doomed to live with their illness forever and would not be able to contribute to society.

This belief particularly affected people with schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, and bipolar disorder. However, several long-term studies from several countries, published in the mid-70s, showed this to be false.

The recovery model is used in occupational therapy, a treatment type for both physical and mental health that focuses on the “client-provider partnership” and allows clients to choose what works best for their recovery.

You will also see elements of the recovery model in social work theory, where values such as client self-determination and well-being are emphasized.

What Are Recovery Goals?

The goals of the recovery model include helping people look beyond the limitations of their mental health conditions, encouraging them to strive for and achieve personal ambitions, and inspiring them to create meaningful relationships and personal connections.

Recovery Is Patient-Directed

Often, sound evidence is not enough to change systems. It took two decades for this basic belief to gain traction in the medical community. The change came about largely through patients advocating to be involved in their own treatment.

Patients also began showing, through lived experience, that given the proper supports, they could live active lives in the community. The history of the movement reflects the second basic pillar of the recovery model: The most lasting change happens when the patient directs it.

Characteristics of the Recovery Model

The recovery model of mental illness takes a holistic view of a person’s life. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines recovery from mental disorders and/or substance use disorders as “a process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”

SAMHSA outlines four dimensions that support recovery:

  • Health: In order to manage or recover from mental illness, people must make choices that support both their physical and mental well-being.
  • Home: People need a safe and stable place to live.
  • Purpose: Meaningful daily routines such as school, work, family, and community participation are important during the recovery process and for maintaining wellness.
  • Community: Supportive social relationships provide people with the love, emotional availability, and respect that they need to survive and thrive.

In particular, the recovery model stresses the importance of connectedness and social supports. When people have supportive relationships that offer unconditional love, they are better able to cope with the symptoms of their illness and work toward recovery.

Psychologists, psychiatrists, doctors, and other health professionals can provide such support to a certain degree, but connections offered by friends, family, and other peers are also critical. Support groups and community organizations can help fulfill this need as well.

Principles of Treatment

SAMHSA also defines ten guiding principles for recovery treatment. Every institution that operates according to the recovery model should be striving to incorporate these into their care. According to these principles, recovery:

  • Emerges from hope
  • Is person-driven
  • Occurs through many pathways
  • Is holistic
  • Is supported by peers and allies
  • Is supported through relationship and social networks
  • Is culturally based and influenced
  • Is supported by addressing trauma
  • Involves individual, family, and community strengths and responsibility
  • Is based on respect

The National Push for Recovery

By 2003, individuals who had been advocating for recovery-based care found their work paying off. A mental health commission appointed by President George W. Bush gave the final report of its work and made recovery-based care a national priority. This final report was ambitious. It envisioned a future that focused on the prevention, early detection, and cure of mental illness.

Today, the concept of the recovery model is familiar to most mental health practitioners. But individuals are still working out how to design programs and treatments based on these principles.

For an in-depth look at the recovery model, the American Psychological Association has 15 learning modules that are accessible to the public. The topics range from a broad overview of the recovery model to ways it is being implemented in practice. 

The Recovery Model vs. the Medical Model

The recovery model of mental illness is often contrasted against what is known as the medical model. The medical model posits that mental disorders have physiological causes, so the focus is often on the use of medications for treatment.

While the two models are often presented as being in opposition to one another, researchers have suggested that they are complementary and can be used together. The medical model ensures that biological causes are fully addressed and that people receive the medication-based treatments that they need, while the recovery model ensures that patients are able to be directly involved in their own treatment.

The medical model is rooted in using treatments that are based on empirical research. The recovery model offers the personal empowerment and peer support that people need to cope with their illness and work toward getting better. A number of programs, including the Wellness Recovery Action Plan and the NAMI Family-to-Family program, incorporate both models and have research to back their effectiveness.

Limitations of the Recovery Model

While there are benefits to creating a unique healing program based on someone’s subjective experience of their illness, there are potential drawbacks to using the recovery model.

Because the recovery model is not one consistent program (its components vary based on the client receiving treatment), it can be difficult to measure its outcomes or effectiveness.

In addition, some mental health conditions make it more difficult for a person to participate in guiding their own treatment plan. For instance, some people experiencing psychosis may not view themselves as having a mental illness.

In other cases, a person’s symptoms might be so distressing that they require immediate medical attention. In this situation, the person experiencing mental illness cannot contribute to or make suggestions for their healthcare plan until their symptoms are addressed.

A Word From Verywell

One of the major strengths of the recovery model is that it focuses on individual strengths and abilities rather than on deficits and pathologies. It places trust in the individual to know their own experience and to be able to take an active role in their treatment.

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