Recently, we analyzed data from a representative sample of 3,487 adults from the Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS) to estimate how common thriving after depression really is. To count as thriving after depression, a person not only had to be free of the major symptoms of depression, he/she also had to report well-being superior to 75 percent of non-depressed adults from the United States. We set a very high bar for thriving. Remarkably, almost 10 percent of the people who were clinically depressed when they entered the MIDUS study were thriving 10 years later.
Our new vantage point on depression allows us to see that depression is sometimes far from being an inevitable death sentence. It can be a waystation. In a surprisingly large number of cases, people move from the ashes of despair to flourishing.
Who becomes reborn after depression?
We don’t yet know the full who, how, or why. In the coming years, we expect to unearth many routes to rebirth. For some, full healing may simply take the passage of time. Others may achieve it following formal treatment. Others may discover a new purpose in life or a daily routine that works for them. Some people may achieve this state after the first time they were depressed; others may get there only after several bouts of depression. The most exciting thing about illuminating these pathways is that some pathways undoubtedly will provide new points of leverage for containing the depression epidemic.
It seems surreal that it’s 2018, and only now do we have an estimate of how often people thrive after depression. This neglect of optimal outcomes is shocking because nobody seeks the mere absence of distress and disorder. The hope after depression is for a new era when one can love and be loved, be engaged in the present moment, extract joy and meaning, and do something that matters—something that makes the pain and setbacks of daily life worthwhile. Isn’t the whole point of intervention to help people unlock their potential despite a mental disorder?
We discovered that psychology and psychiatry have a blind spot for good outcomes. This blind spot is larger than depression. It covers substance use problems. It covers anxiety and eating disorders. It covers most major mental health problems. In all these cases, we lack even the most basic estimates of how many people go on to fully recover and flourish in their lives.
We believe that until these blind spots are filled in, therapists and physicians should tread more lightly. People experiencing problems in treatment settings are routinely told that their condition has a grim prognosis. Until we know how common flourishing is, such pronouncements are misinformed, even hurtful. They do not serve patients well.
We need to see human beings as they are, which often differs from our intuition, expert opinions, and the inner monologue that plagues us when we experience the depths of depression or any emotional disturbance. Our new view about the possibilities after depression is not only a closer fit to existing scientific evidence, it also happens to be more hopeful.
Originally appeared on: Psychology Today Republished with permission