Many Mental Health Conditions are Not Chronic – And Do Not Preclude Thriving

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Many Mental Health Conditions are Not Chronic – and Do Not Preclude Thriving

Jim Windell

           In the United States, 21 % of adults experienced mental illness in 2020. That represents almost 53 million people – or one in 5 adults. Nearly 14 and a half million adults experienced serious mental illness in 2020. And almost eight million youth ages six to 17 suffered from a mental health disorder in 2016.

           Previous research on mental illness has typically focused on addressing the symptoms. However, a University of South Florida research team has found that symptoms only correlate modestly with well-being.

           This means that knowing a patient’s symptoms, alone, cannot determine if they are thriving. As a result, clinicians and researchers may tend to prematurely conclude that thriving after mental illness is impossible.

           But the University of South Florida psychologists are challenging these kinds of stereotypes surrounding mental illness. It may be, these researchers contend, that some mental illnesses are not always chronic and can still allow for people to thrive.

           In one of the broadest assessments yet of well-being after mental illness, the team, led by Andrew Devendorf, a University of South Florida doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, investigated how likely it is for someone to recover and live a life with high levels of purpose, positive emotions and healthy relationships. Their study, published recently in Clinical Psychological Science, reveals that long-term well-being is a realistic goal for some patients, despite stereotypes that imply conditions are inevitably chronic, recurrent and incompatible with well-being.

           These results stem from the 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 percent had experienced various mental illnesses throughout their lifetime; 67% recovered and nearly 10 percent of that subsample were thriving. Of the remaining people who reported no lifetime disorders, nearly 24 percent reported they were thriving. Even for those who reported multiple lifetime conditions, that did not completely prevent thriving. For example, among people who thrived after depression, 43 percent experienced at least two lifetime diagnoses.

           However, the odds of thriving were higher for those who reported shorter illness durations, particularly episodes that lasted less than two years. These findings indicate seeking help earlier may improve long-term outcomes. Additionally, patients with depression and substance abuse disorders were more likely to thrive compared to those with anxiety and bipolar disorders.

           According to Andrew Devendorf, “The messages that are presented publicly aren’t consistent with the scientific data and I think our findings are hopeful for people because they actually show those messages aren’t necessarily correct.”

           Unfortunately, misinformation is commonly shared and the implications strike close to home for Devendorf, who lost his brother to suicide after a long battle with depression.

           “From my perspective,” Devendorf says, “I think one of the things that made my brother really hopeless was when he got depression, he was told this message that ‘you can’t get better, it’s something you’re going to have the rest of your life.’ That message was really crippling to him and to us.”

           Devendorf adds that a richer understanding of thriving and how it varies by condition and patient characteristics could help clinicians better understand the likely course of their patients’ disorders. He hopes the discoveries made in this study will influence the way providers explain prognosis information to their patients and, ultimately, leave their patients with hope instead of despair.

           So, while mental illness might reduce the likelihood of thriving, it does not make it impossible.

           To read the original article, find it with this reference:

Devendorf, A. R., Rum, R., Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2022). Optimal Well-Being After Psychopathology: Prevalence and CorrelatesClinical Psychological Science


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