Mental Health: What Does Relapse Mean?

Many people are under the misconception that relapse only affects individuals who are struggling with addiction. This is false. So then, what does relapse mean? The truth is that a relapse can happen in many different arenas – especially the arena of mental health. Individuals who are in recovery from mental illness may experience a relapse if they do not maintain adherence to an effective treatment plan.

Relapse Beyond Addiction Recovery

According to the book titled Addiction Relapse Prevention, authors Guenzel and McChargue explain, “One primary concern in addiction treatment is the high rate of relapses within a short period after even the most intensive treatment. Many studies have shown relapse rates of approximately 50% within the first 12 weeks after completion of intensive inpatient programs that often last 4 to 12 weeks or more and can cost tens of thousands of dollars.” In other words, data shows that relapse is certainly a part of addiction recovery. 

However, it is much harder to quantify relapse when it comes to other issues of mental illness. For example, addictions like substance use disorder (SUD) are much more tangible in that relapse is characterized by the returned use of a substance after a period of cessation. In this case, it is important to understand what relapse means when discussing mental health.

What Does Relapse Mean in Mental Health?

Understanding the Physical and Emotional Effects of Alcohol Detox

When it comes to issues of mental health and relapse, it can be hard to identify because not everyone is aware that they may be experiencing one. For example, an individual who is struggling with an anxiety disorder may not notice their symptoms returning, as they are doing so in a delayed fashion. 

Again, unlike SUD, a relapse in mental illness can come over a period of time rather than a “lightning bolt” experience. Now, it should be noted here that we also understand that many people consider a relapse in addiction as a process rather than an experience. What this means is that ultimately, the relapse actually occurs before the substance even enters the picture because it first starts as an “emotional relapse.”

Again, according to the aforementioned publication by authors Guenzel and McChargue, “Individuals in [emotional relapse] are often not planning to relapse so that they may be in denial of their risk of relapse. This denial can prevent the use of effective techniques to prevent the progression of the relapse.” The same emotional relapse can happen with individuals struggling with mental illness.

Some Warning Signs of a Relapse of a Mental Health Disorder

Interestingly enough, the warning signs of a mental health relapse can look very similar to those of an addiction relapse. The following are just a few of those warning signs:

  • No longer attending therapy or community-based programs
  • Stopping medication or altering the dosage of medication
  • For individuals without SUD, the increased use of alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms
  • Isolating away from others
  • A stoppage of communication
  • Experiencing difficulties at work, school, or in the home
  • Expressing feeling like a recovery plan is either no longer working, or that they no longer need “to work” a recovery plan

Creating a Mental Health Relapse Prevention Plan

Now, just as one would do if they were concerned about an addiction relapse, creating a relapse prevention plan can certainly be effective for individuals in recovery from mental illness. A relapse prevention plan can help avoid a relapse altogether or catch a relapse at its early stages if one were to occur.

One of the most important aspects of a relapse prevention plan is creating an open and honest line of communication in both personal and professional settings. For example, it can be critical to let everyone in the home know what types of medication one takes and what their recovery schedule is. This way, if this medication disappears or the schedule becomes skewed, loved ones will be able to recognize that there may be some issues going on. 

Also, being open and honest with doctors and therapists is crucial. Some individuals feel as though they may have failed when they go off of their recovery plan. This mindset is counterproductive and mental health professionals know both this as not to be true and also the next steps to take.