What Is Critical To Recovery?

What’s the most important ingredient to recovery if you have a mental illness?

I’m beginning my week by flying into LaCrosse, Wisconsin, where I will speak tonight at Viterbo University.  As always, I will talk about my book, my son, and what happened to our family. I will explain how those terrible events led me to the Miami Dade County Detention Center where I followed persons with mental disorders through the criminal justice system.  I will talk about how our jails and prisons have become our new asylums, why this is wrong and how we need to turn our current system back into a community health issue rather than having it continue to be a criminal justice problem. 

But on this trip, I’ve also been asked to speak in the afternoon to a number of local leaders as part of an informal afternoon “conversation.” The goal of this talk, which is sponsored by the Mental Health Coalition, is to discuss what is happening in La Crosse and what it might do better. 

My role is to describe successful programs that I’ve seen visiting 46 states and three countries — Iceland, Brazil and Portugal — and touring more than a hundred different programs.

I am always happy to talk about programs that are making a difference and I don’t mind citing specific examples.

Want to see a top notch Crisis Intervention Team in operation. Go to Houston, Texas. CIT is important because law enforcement officers deal with more persons with mental problems than most psychiatrists do during a day. CIT is essential in a community.

Want to see a city that is saving taxdollars by helping people get treatment rather than locking them up. Visit San Antonio, Texas. It is home to a Community Crisis Center where CIT teams can take persons for immediate help and drop them off rather than locking them up in jail or dumping them at the doors of already crowded emergency rooms. The San Antonio crisis center has recently developed  SOBER ROOMS where persons who are drunk in public can be taken and helped, rather than put in a drunk tank. 

If you want to see Mental Health Courts,  go to Pittsburgh, Pa..  Judges there are helping people get help rather than wasting away in jail. Allegheny County (Pa.) also has a fabulous Jail Intercept Program where prisoners with mental illnesses are identified and directed into treatment.

Visit the Twin Towers — the Los Angeles jail — if you want to see a re-entry program where persons with mental disorders in jail are connected with services and housing before they are released to the streets.

Want examples of programs that don’t involve the criminal justice system?

Travel to L.A.’s Skid Row and tour  The LAMP, one of the country’s premier Housing First programs. It was featured in the hit film, The Soloist.  There are a number of innovative housing programs in Skid Row, many receiving funds from the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Interested in learning about Assertive Community Treatment? Visit the town where it was born: Madison, Wisconsin.  ACT  is one of the most effective treatment methods ever developed because it takes professionals to the clients for intense help rather than expecting people who are sick and disoriented to find help on their own. 

Denver, Colorado has a great recovery program that welcomes the homeless with drop in centers. 

 Fort Wayne, Indiana has adopted the fabulous Fountain House Clubhouse model that helps people get jobs.

Go to Jacksonville, Florida, if you want to see an innovative peer led program where persons with mental disorders can choose to make Weight Watchers part of their treatment routine and can actually fire members of their treatment team if they fail to help them meet their recovery goals.

Montgomery County, Pennsylvania has a great peer to peer program. Cincinnati has a well run Homeless Team. Curious about Assisted Outpatient Treatment, check out Kendra’s Law in New York and read the volumes of studies about  its impact.

The list goes on and on.

So what is the most important recovery tool? CIT? ACT? Mental Health Courts? Housing First? Great community services?

People are always a bit surprised to hear what I think is the most necessary ingredient. This is because it is not a specific program.

There can be no recovery without HOPE.

Persons who have mental disorders must have hope. They must believe they can get better. And the people helping them on their journey must believe that too.

I know it might sound Pollyannaish, especially if you have a loved one who has been sick for years or is in the midst of a psychotic break, is violent, refuses to cooperate, or is in denial. Trust me, I do not believe that love conquers all and that we can cure a brain disease simply by becoming a cheerleader for a person who is sick and wishing their problems would disappear.

But I also believe that sometimes we forget the importance of believing in the seemingly impossible. Perhaps, not everyone will get well. But we must believe that everyone can improve, can move forward, and can recover, otherwise they most certainly will not improve, will not move forward and will not recover.

 Put simply, we must never underestimate the human spirit. We must never lose hope.

Some people claim that the actor Hal Lindsey said the following. Others believe it is much older than him and the author is unknown. Regardless, the words are ones that I like to remember and will likely repeat during my speech:

Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.”

 HOPE is essential to recovery.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Absolutely! Hope is indeed essential to recovery. Thank you for such a great list of programs that work. I think our agency will be connecting with some of these programs across the country for best practice information.

  2. Scott Crawford says

    Thanks. For everything. And, tonight especially, for putting this quote in my hands just before I was to give a talk on the subject of hope. It made for great intro.

    “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only for one second without hope.”

    With much gratitude,

  3. Debbiesirota says

    And when you have no hope have someone hold that hope for you!

  4. Susan Denyes Moody says

    Thank you, Pete, for recognizing Houston’s CIT. We are very proud of them and all they do for our loved ones.

    Susan Denyes Moody, President
    National Alliance on Mental Illness Metropolitan Houston

  5. Pjseverson says

    Thank you Pete, for your great presentation at Viterbo University in La Crosse Wisconsin. I am the parent of a young man who walked a similar path as your son, and found great support and education with NAMI. So, as a NAMI advocate and co-chair of the Mental Health Coalition, I helped facilitate the afternoon session where we had a chance to bring together key leaders who have helped to create change in our community. We have done amazing work over the past decade implementing some of what you recommend…CIT, Peer Support Specialists, Community Education, Alternatives to Incarceration, Drug Court, AODA Court, and Veterans Court, and opened a new crisis center. Hearing what is happening in other communities around the country helps us know we are moving in the right direction. You inspired us at Viterbo last Monday night to keep on doing what we are doing and to consider new ways to keep improving…..you have renewed our hope.

  6. Anonymous says

    Thank you Pete, hope someone in La Crosse can help my son who is currently in the La Crosse County Jail, again.  He received a ATR for a 90 day Alcohol/Drug and Domestic Violence starting June 8th in Milwaukee, WI.  But, mental health treatment is not available to him.  The DOJ said he is not bad enough.  He has been on meds since he was 5 and in/out of doctors office for 15 yrs.  Still can’t get him the help he needs.  He beat me for 2 and a half hours.  In 90+ days he is going to be out again with no mental health treatment and at my door step.