Psychologists at the University of South Florida (USF) are challenging stereotypes surrounding mental illness – finding that some conditions aren’t always chronic and can still allow a person to thrive.
In one of the broadest assessments of well-being after mental illness to date, the team, led by Andrew Devendorf, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at USF, studied the likelihood that a person would restore and live a life with high levels of purpose, positive emotions and healthy relationships.
Their study, published in Clinical Psychological Sciencesreveals that long-term wellness is a realistic goal for some patients, despite stereotypes that imply that conditions are inevitably chronic, recurrent, and incompatible with wellness.
These results stem from an examination of data collected from 25,000 Canadians, provided by Statistics Canada, on the prevalence of thriving after a life history of mental illness. Of the participants, about 33% had experienced various mental illnesses in their lifetime; 67% recovered and nearly 10% of this subsample were thriving.
Of the remaining people who reported no disorder in their lifetime, nearly 24% said they were thriving.
“While mental illness can reduce the likelihood, that doesn’t make it impossible,” Devendorf said.
Even for those who reported multiple living conditions, they didn’t completely prevent them from thriving. For example, among people who thrived after depression, 43% experienced at least two diagnoses in their lifetime.
However, the odds of thriving were higher for those who reported shorter disease durations, particularly episodes that lasted less than two years. These results indicate that seeking help earlier can improve long-term outcomes.
Additionally, patients with depression and substance abuse disorders were more likely to thrive than those with anxiety and bipolar disorder.
Previous research on mental illness has generally focused on treating symptoms. However, the USF team found that symptoms were only modestly correlated with well-being. This means that knowing a patient’s symptoms alone cannot determine if they are doing well. As a result, clinicians and researchers may have concluded prematurely that thriving after mental illness is impossible.
“The messages that are presented publicly are not consistent with the scientific data and I think our findings are hopeful for people because they actually show that these messages are not necessarily correct,” Devendorf said.
Unfortunately, the misinformation is commonly shared, and the implications hit close to home for Devendorf, who lost his brother to suicide after a long battle with depression.
“From my perspective, I think one of the things that made my brother really desperate was when he got depressed, he was told this message that ‘you can’t get better, it’ is something you are going to have the rest of your life.’ This message was truly paralyzing for him and for us.
According to National Library of Medicine.
Devendorf says a better understanding of flourishing and how it varies by patient condition and characteristics could help clinicians better understand the likely course of their patients’ disorders. He hopes the findings made in this study will influence how providers explain prognostic information to their patients and ultimately leave their patients with hope instead of despair.
The study was done in collaboration with USF Professor Jonathan Rottenberg, Ruba Rum, USF doctoral student in clinical psychology, and Todd Kashdan, professor of psychology at George Mason University.