Psychologists at the University of South Florida (USF) are challenging stereotypes surrounding mental illness – finding that some conditions are not always chronic and can still allow someone to thrive.
In one of the most comprehensive assessments of well-being yet after mental illness, the team led by Andrew Devendorff, a USF doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, examined how likely someone is to recover and live a life with a high degree of purpose, Positive emotions and healthy relationships.
Their study, published in Clinical Psychological Science, suggests that long-term well-being is a realistic goal for some patients, despite stereotypes that the conditions are essentially chronic, recurrent, and incompatible with well-being.
These results stem from a review of data collected on 25,000 Canadians, provided by Statistics Canada, on the prevalence of thriving after a lifetime history of mental illnesses. Among participants, about 33% had experienced various mental illnesses throughout their lifetime; 67% were cured and about 10% of that subsample was thriving.
Of the remaining people who reported no lifelong disorder, about 24% reported that they were thriving.
“While mental illness may reduce the likelihood, it does not make it impossible,” Devendorff said.
Even for those who reported multiple lifetime conditions, that didn’t stop them from thriving completely. For example, of those who thrived after depression, 43% experienced at least two lifelong diagnoses.
However, flourishing was more likely for those who reported shorter illness duration, especially episodes that lasted less than two years. These findings indicate that seeking help earlier can improve long-term outcomes.
Additionally, patients with depression and substance use disorders were more likely to thrive than those with anxiety and bipolar disorder.
Previous research on mental illness has generally focused on addressing the symptoms. However, the USF team found that symptoms only had a modest correlation with well-being. This means that by knowing the patient’s symptoms alone, it cannot be determined whether they flourish or not. As a result, physicians and researchers may have prematurely concluded that thriving after mental illness is impossible.
“The messages that are presented publicly are not consistent with scientific data and I think our findings are hopeful for people because they really show that those messages are not necessarily true,” Devendorff said.
Unfortunately, misinformation is commonly shared and its implications come close to home for Devendorff, who lost his brother to suicide after a long battle with depression.
“From my point of view, I think one of the things that really frustrated my brother when he had depression was the message that ‘you can’t get better, it’s something you can’t do with yourself,'” he said. Going to do in the rest of life.’ That message was really crippling for him and for us.”
According to the National Library of Medicine, more than 86% of people by the age of 45 will experience some form of mental illness.
Devendorf says that a richer understanding of thrush and how it varies by condition and patient characteristics can help clinicians better understand the potential course of their patients’ disorders. He hopes that the discoveries made in this study will influence the way providers explain prognosis information to their patients and, ultimately, leave their patients with hope rather than despair.
The study was designed in conjunction with USF Professor Jonathan Rotenberg, Ruba Rum, a USF doctoral student in clinical psychology, and Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University.