Depression keeps itself alive with an intense, overwhelming sense of hopelessness. This hopelessness kills the motivation to reach into the world for support, something that is already fragile because of the stigma that is so often attached to mental illness.
New research, published in the journal Psychiatry Research, offers a reason for hope. There is life after depression – a strong, healthy, happy life – and the research has found the factors that will help to make this possible and those that will get in the way.
In a study involving more than 2,500 people who had experienced a major depressive disorder at some time in their lives, researchers found that about two in five people (39%) were able to fully recover and experience full mental health. The researchers defined full mental health as:
- experiencing happiness or life satisfaction almost every day for the last month;
- a full year without depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts or substance abuse; and
- positive social and psychological well-being.
The research revealed important findings about what helped, what hindered and what had no bearing at all on the likelihood of thriving after depression.
Life After Depression. How to Thrive
What makes the difference.
The research found that social support played a major role in achieving full mental health after depression. Having at least one trusted friend quadrupled the likelihood of a full recovery.
Sometimes depression can make people feel as though they are just out of reach and loving someone with depression can be lonely, frustrating, painful and deeply worrying. If you’re close to someone with depression, you might feel as though you’re not making a difference, but that’s what depression does – it’s the dirty little liar that tries to pull the fight out of all of us – those who have the illness and those who care who would do anything to make it better for them. What this research is telling us is that being there, as a trusted friend, has the power to make an enormous difference in helping your loved one find the way out of depression.
“Formerly depressed adults who had emotionally supportive and close relationships were four times more likely to report complete mental health than those without such relationships. Having at least one trust friend was critical to cultivating complete mental health.” Mercedes Bern-Klug, Associate Professor, University of Iowa.
The research also found that hose who fully recovered from depression were more likely to deal with stress through exercise or spirituality.
There is so much research showing the remarkable capacity of exercise to reduce the symptoms of depression. Exercise restores the levels of two important neurotransmitters, glutamate and GABA, to healthy levels. It also seems to have a healing effect on the damage done by inflammation. Increasingly, research is finding that systemic inflammation is a major contributing factor to depression. Regularly exercising for periods between 8-20 minutes seems to be enough to make the difference.
The surprising factor that makes no difference at all.
The length of time someone has been struggling with depression makes no difference to their ability to reach full mental health. According to the research, people who had experienced depression for over two years were just as able to fully recover and flourish in their lives after depression, as those who had the illness for only a month.
What gets in the way of recovery.
The research also found a number of factors that seemed to undermine the likelihood of achieving full mental health after depression. These included poor physical health, chronic pain, insomnia, and a history of substance abuse.
One of the reasons that depression is so debilitating is because the core symptoms of depression make it hard to reach out for support or to keep up the for the way out. When they combine forces, lethargy, sadness, emptiness, and intense feelings of hopelessness put up a mighty push against even the strongest, bravest and most determined human spirit. The social isolation and stillness that comes from this feeds depression and makes recovery even harder, but where social isolation hurts, social connection heals.
This research gives hope and encouragement to keep up the fight. Many people who experience depression will fully recover. Many others will find some level of relief from their symptoms. There is no quick fix for depression, but there is great hope for healing. The fight is worth it – the capacity to flourish in life after depression is there.