Never give up: People can still thrive after battling mental illness, substance abuse

TAMPA, Fla. — When it comes to mental health and substance abuse recovery, there’s no such thing as a lost cause. Those are the new, uplifting findings by a team with the Association for Psychological Science. Study authors report many people who once suffered from mental illness or substance abuse disorders are indeed able to thrive and lead high-functioning lives.

When people are at our lowest, life can feel hopeless. This research serves to remind that there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, even if it isn’t within view at that particular moment.

“Our research tells us how many people can recover from a mental illness and go on to experience a life with high levels of well-being and functioning,” says lead study author Andrew Devendorf, a researcher at the University of South Florida, in a media release. “Contrary to traditional clinical wisdom, we found that mental illness and substance-use disorders may reduce but do not prevent the possibility of thriving.”

There is always a chance to come out on top

While this research does reveal that longer bouts of mental illness or experiencing multiple mental illnesses over the course one’s lifetime reduces the chances of “thriving” post-recovery, it does not eliminate the possibility altogether. No matter what a person may have been through, or is still working on, there is always hope for a better tomorrow.

The team used data originally collected for the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey—Mental Health for this work. That poll was a nationally representative survey featuring over 25,000 Canadian participants between 15 and 80 years-old. Surveys gathered information on participants’ lifetime and 12-month mental health status, access to and perceived need for formal and informal services and supports, everyday functioning and disabilities, and any other factors potentially influencing mental health.

Researchers then compared mental health data collected in that survey with each participant’s quality of life, encompassing their social relationships, positive emotions, perceived quality of life, and overall capacity to function (fulfill life roles). These comparisons helped study authors calculate how many participants showing a lifetime history of mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and substance-use disorder, could be classified as “thriving” at the time of the study.

In order to qualify as “thriving” after a bout of depression, individuals had to meet two qualifiers: Show no symptoms typically associated with depression, and report superior well-being than 75 percent of non-depressed surveyed U.S. adults.

“We set a very high bar for thriving,” Devendorf admits.

What are the chances for recovery?

The analysis revealed roughly 10 percent of people with a history of mental illness met thriving criteria. In comparison, about 24 percent of respondents who did not have a history of mental illness were also thriving. Meanwhile, people with a history of substance-use disorders (10%), depression (7%), and anxiety (6%) were also more likely to thrive than others with a history of bipolar disorder (3%).

“These findings show that mental illnesses reduce—but do not preclude—the possibility to meet thriving criteria,” Devendorf explains. “Although thriving after mental illness was not necessarily common, it should be noted that diagnostic recoveries after mental illness were much more common.”

It’s important to mention that the majority of people (67%) who dealt with mental illness at some point in their life met the criteria for “symptomatic recovery”, meaning they no longer displayed the technical textbook diagnostic criteria for their prior condition. The research team theorizes that, in general, people recover from mental illnesses and regain moderate-to-good levels of well-being quite often.

“While we know traditional mental health treatments, like therapy and medication, can reduce mental illness symptoms, there is a lack of research on how treatments affect outcomes like well-being and functioning,” Devendorf concludes. “Now that we know thriving is possible after mental illness, we hope that researchers will begin to investigate how existing treatments can increase the chance for thriving after mental illness.”

The study is published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

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