A significant positive development in the mental health field is growing recognition that a diagnosis of mental illness is not a life sentence to an incurable condition that invariably will have only negative consequences for a person's life course. This was the view that, until recently, was commonly held by many consumers, their families and clinicians. While the onset of mental illness is undoubtedly a serious life event, many people who have experienced mental illness live full and meaningful lives: some remain symptom free after their first episode, while others adapt to the symptoms that they recurrently experience. It is now recognised that it is not inevitable that a first episode will lead to further illness and that even when further episodes do occur, it is not necessary for such illness to put an end to the positive aspects of life.

There are three possible scenarios following the initial onset of mental illness:

  • No further episodes of mental illness;
  • Occasional recurrent episodes of mental illness; and
  • Chronic mental illness with repeated episodes.
For people who have experienced a first episode of mental illness, the risk of future episodes is increased, and efforts to prevent recurrent episodes are essential to reduce the impact of mental illness for consumers, their families and carers, and their communities. Consequently, ways to prevent recurrent episodes and reduce their impact on wellbeing have become a valuable area of investigation. A growing body of evidence attests that such relapse prevention is possible.

Relapse prevention has been recognised as a high priority for some time. The National Action Plan for Promotion, Prevention and Early Intervention for Mental Health (2000) [Action Plan 2000] acknowledged the importance of relapse prevention and early intervention for recurrent mental illness and identified these as areas for future action. It was noted in Action Plan 2000 that many of the issues related to promotion, prevention and early intervention for mental health were also relevant to preventing relapse, but that there were likely to be unique factors for people who had already been diagnosed with a mental illness that warranted separate consideration in another document

The Evaluation of the Second National Mental Health Plan (2003) reported that early intervention, for both first and recurrent episodes of mental illness, was an area where there was still considerable need for improvement in terms of Australia's mental health care system. Continuity of care, in all its forms—across the course of an episode of illness, across the lifespan, and across service sectors—was also an area where greater emphasis and innovative approaches were urgently required.

Most recently, relapse prevention is clearly evident in the National Mental Health Plan 2003 - 2008 as an area that requires increased focus. Factors related to relapse prevention are emphasised throughout the Plan, particularly in the sections on preventing mental health problems, access to care, continuity of care, support for families and carers, consumer rights and legislation, and consumer and carer participation.