For people dealing with depression, anxiety, substance use disorders or other mental health problems, there is good news. New research shows that it is possible for them to recover and lead balanced and vibrant lives.
Previous research on mental illness has always focused on recurrent or chronic vulnerability to mood disorders, anxiety or problematic substance use such as alcohol or drugs. Such vulnerability was often said to seriously hamper a healthy and happy life.
However, new research in Clinical Psychological Science says that many people who have experienced mental health problems at one time or another do have a chance to live happy and full lives.
High levels of well-being are possible
“Our research shows that many people can recover from mental illness and lead lives where they experience high levels of well-being and function well,” said Andrew Devendorf, a researcher at the University of South Florida and lead author of the study. “In contrast to traditional clinical outcomes, we found that mental illness and substance use disorders can reduce, but certainly do not prevent, the ability to develop well.”
The researchers also found that even long periods of mental health problems or the development of multiple mental health conditions together does not preclude the chance of functioning well.
The data analysed for this study came from a large-scale Canadian study from 2012 in which more than 25,000 participants aged 15 to 80 years and older took part. The study collected information on participants’ mental health, their access to and need for support and other factors that influence mental health.
In their study, Devendorf and his team compared mental health conditions and other health data that affect each participant’s quality of life, including their social relationships, positive emotions, perceived quality of life and functioning (the ability to fulfil different roles in life). The researchers then looked at how many people with a lifetime history of mental illness – including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or substance use disorder – met the criteria indicating a “good” life at the time of the study.
The researchers looked at three things to determine whether a subject was living a good life. The subject had to have been free of mental illness for at least a year. Furthermore, he or she had to demonstrate, by means of standardised tests, a very high degree of social, emotional and psychological well-being. Finally, the person had to show that he or she can function well by scoring low on a commonly used disability test.
The good life
“We set the bar very high to define a good and thriving life,” says Devendorf.
The results of the study show that 10 per cent of Canadians with a history of mental illness met the criteria for a good life, compared to about 24 per cent of Canadians who did not experience mental illness in their lifetime. Those with a history of substance use disorders (10 per cent), depression (7 per cent) and anxiety (6 per cent) were more likely to live a good life compared to those with a history of bipolar disorder (3 per cent).
“These findings show that while mental illness reduces the possibility of a flourishing life, it certainly does not exclude it,” says Devendorf. He also notes that diagnostic recovery from mental illness is more common than objectively experiencing an “optimally good and vibrant” life.
Therapy and medication
“We know that traditional mental health treatments, such as therapy and medication, reduce mental health problems. Yet there is little research on exactly how these treatments contribute to a better sense of well-being and functioning,” says Devendorf. “Now that we know that a good life after mental health problems is certainly not out of the question, we hope that more research will be done on how existing therapies can further increase the chances of that happening.”