Explaining mental health recovery in the context of structural disadvantage: the unrealised potential of critical realism

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Despite the acknowledgement that mental health inequalities are shaped by the interaction of macro-level (structural) and micro-level (individual, agentic) powers, dominant paradigms in mental health research have been ill-equipped to integrate those different levels of influence theoretically and empirically. As a result, an explanatory ‘deficit’ persists as to the causal mechanisms underpinning the impact of social inequalities on mental well-being, particularly mental health recovery. To redress this gap, critical realism has been put forward as a useful metatheoretical alternative. This paper begins by offering a succinct critique of extant mental health recovery research. Mental health recovery is problematised in relation to its dynamic embeddedness in contextual, including macro-structural, conditions. The core tenets and principles of critical realism are then invoked to address the identified philosophical and theoretical inadequacies. This paper argues that critical realism offers promise for explaining how inequality-generating mechanisms, such as social exclusion, may impede recovery. The analytico-conceptual potential of critical realism has remained largely untapped by the extant mental health scholarship. Critical realism offers a holistic and inclusive set of conceptual tools to re-examine the structure–agency nexus in order to advance mental health recovery and inequalities research, and an equity-based policy agenda.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages14
JournalSocial Theory and Health
Early online date13 Nov 2019
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Nov 2019


  • health inequalities
  • mental health
  • recovery
  • critical realism
  • public health

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