On the other side of depression, there is real hope for a full and happy life.
When people are in the midst of a deep depression, it certainly doesn’t feel that way. There’s a heavy darkness that accompanies all the sadness, like a black sludge coursing through their veins. It is physically exhausting, socially isolating and mentally excruciating. In a word, life feels hopeless.
But more and more, the mental health community is focusing on recovery, which is possible even for people with massive depressive disorder.
A new study by researchers at the University of Toronto found nearly 40 percent of people 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.”
While the study cannot predict future relapse, its lead author, Esme Fuller-Thomson, said a full year without symptoms and a full 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. We’ve been aiming way too low.”
Shift in focus
In recent years, 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 was once governed by pessimism.
“We were stealing hope away from people,” he said. “The recovery movement reintroduces hope to the diagnoses.”
The researchers drew their data from 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey-Mental Health. To be deemed in “complete mental health” the person had to be mental illness-free for a year, feel happy or satisfied almost every day over a month period, and positive social well-being.
What surprised Fuller-Thomson was that the duration of the depression didn’t have an impact on recovery. Some of the people recovered had been seriously depressed for two or more years.
She also released a similar study a few months ago looking at people who had ever seriously considered suicide. She found similar results. About two in five did not report any mental illness or suicidal ideation in the past year.
While the studies couldn’t say explicitly 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 better.
“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 without her friends’ support she doesn’t know whether she would have come out of it.
As Slattery wrote and the study confirms, 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 give them a light to reach for in all that darkness.
“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.”