But more and more, the mental health community is focusing on recovery.
A new study by researchers at the University of Toronto found nearly 40 percent of Canadians who previously had depression reported feeling happiness or satisfaction almost daily:
Our findings provide a hopeful message for both clients and clinicians: It is within the grasp of many individuals who have previously succumbed to depression to fully flourish and achieve complete mental health. Two in five individuals with a history of depression have been completely free for the preceding year of depression and anxiety disorders, suicidal thoughts, and substance abuse and, at the same time have been happy or satisfied with their life on an almost daily basis and have achieved social and psychological well-being.
Although the study cannot predict future relapse, its lead author, Esme Fuller-Thomson, said a year without symptoms and a month feeling happy or satisfied every day is a very encouraging sign.
“From the perspective of someone in the depths of depression, knowing they have the potential to have a full year free of this is a wonderful light at the end of the tunnel,” she said. “This not just getting better, this is thriving. This is happy almost every day. This is not neutral.”
In recent decades, the focus on mental health has shifted from survival to recovery. Patrick Corrigan, a professor of psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology and an expert on mental illness stigma, said the field used to be governed by pessimism, where patients were instructed to manage expectations.
“We were stealing hope away from people,” he said. “The recovery movement reintroduces hope to the diagnoses.”
Still, Fuller-Thomson said the bar for recovery has been set too low. She thinks recovery should be measured by “complete mental health,” which is defined as being mental-illness-free for a year, feeling happy or satisfied almost every day over a month period, and having positive social well-being.
By setting the study’s bar so high, the results don’t factor in the people with depression who are functioning well, but may not feel happy or satisfied every day. But that, Fuller-Thomson said, should be the long-term goal for life after depression.
The researchers drew their data from the 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health.
What surprised Fuller-Thomson was that the duration of the depression didn’t have an impact on recovery. Some of the people had been persistently depressed for two or more years, and now had complete mental health.
The same was true for people who had ever seriously considered suicide. In a similar study she released a few months ago, she also found that about two out of five people who had thought about taking their lives did not report any mental illness or suicidal ideation in the previous year.
While the studies couldn’t say what steps these people took in their recovery, like medication or therapy, in both there was one significant factor that made it more likely that someone would get better: Relationships. People with depression who reported having at least one close relationship that provided emotional support were four times more likely to be in complete mental health.
“I think we all know intuitively that being isolated isn’t good for us, but we’re incredibly social beings, and it’s toxic for us to be socially isolated,” Fuller-Thomson said. “Investing in social relationships for a few more hours a day is worth more than a few more hours of work.”
Last month, an article titled “To the Friends Who Didn’t Give Up on Me When My Depression Wanted You To” was published on the website “The Mighty.” The author, Samantha Slattery, described her major depressive disorder and how she doesn’t know whether she would have come out of it without her friends’ support.
“I held onto life through all of these times because you held my hand through the pitch black darkness and into a dimmed light …,” she said.
As Slattery wrote and the study confirmed, being there for a friend who is struggling with a mental health issue can make a huge difference in their recovery.
And for those who may be battling depression now, Fuller-Thomson hopes the results of her study offer some faith for better times ahead.
“The depths of despair that one is currently in when they are depressed has cast a shadow, and you can’t see a future that is hopeful,” she said. “But this indicates that two in five in that exact same place will emerge not just to be not depressed, but to be flourishing and of optimal well-being.”
We’d love to hear your stories of beating depression or any other mental illness. Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to share your recovery story.