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From depression to bipolar disorder: What experts say about recovering from mental health conditions

Experts say that most people who are diagnosed with a mental illness can recover.
Experts say that most people who are diagnosed with a mental illness can recover. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Imane El Atillah
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Contrary to the notion that recovery from some mental illnesses is impossible, research shows that many people can fully recover and lead fulfilling lives.

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While many individuals may experience mental health problems at some point in their lives, the historical stigma around the issue has led to misunderstanding.

Sufferers have sometimes been labelled as lazy or weak and stigma has led to suggestions that recovery from mental illnesses is rare or almost unachievable.

Yet, research contradicts these ideas, showing that some conditions are not inherently chronic and for many, there is hope for recovery.

“In the public, there are a lot of negative stereotypes that once people get something like depression or a lot of other mental health conditions, people think you can't recover or get better from them,” Andrew Devendorf, clinical psychologist and researcher at the University of South Florida, told Euronews Health.

“There's this stereotype that recovery from mental health problems is impossible, and that's not true according to the data that we're finding and also the studies that we're doing,” he added.

Understanding recovery from mental illnesses

In psychiatry, mental illness is recognised via the symptoms exhibited by a person, so recovery is also closely tied to these symptoms.

“These conditions are defined by a certain criteria of symptoms, and for a certain period of time, and once people no longer have those symptoms over a period of time, then they would be considered recovered,” Devendorf said.

However, Devendorf emphasised that while the absence of symptoms is a criterion for recovery, the real goal should be to thrive and go beyond merely being asymptomatic.

For example, to be considered recovered after depression, the individual must show high levels of well-being, which include maintaining positive personal relationships, the ability to experience joy and pleasure, and maintaining an optimal life overall.

While the path to recovery may differ based on the specific mental health condition, the core goals are similar.

Dr Esme Fuller-Thomson, the lead author of research on recovery from bipolar disorder from the University of Toronto in Canada, describes the road to full recovery from bipolar disorder on a three-level scale.

The first level involves being free of bipolar symptoms for at least a year, then the person needs to be free from all mental illnesses, including substance dependence issues.

The highest level, called "optimal mental health," requires exhibiting frequent levels of happiness and satisfaction with one’s life that allows the person to flourish.

Recurrence of mental health conditions

In the case of depression, Devendorf explained that after not exhibiting symptoms for a period of eight weeks, the person is said to have recovered from depression, or at least that episode of it, however, there could be a potential chance of relapse.

“If they were to have another episode of depression, we would say that that is a recurrent episode, and recurrent meaning you have a new episode of depression,” Devendorf said.

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He added that while based on large population studies, about 40 to 60 per cent of people with depression will have more than one depressive episode in their lifetime, that’s not entirely bad news.

From a different perspective, these numbers also mean that about half may only have a single episode of depression.

“Of that portion of people who also don't have an episode of depression, we find in our research that about 20 per cent of those people will meet the thriving criteria,” he added.

The data also offer hope for a wide range of other mental health conditions.

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Fuller-Thomson mentioned that, according to research, recovery rates are significantly high among those with a history of generalised anxiety disorders, with 72 per cent being in remission.

Also, in cases of bipolar disorder, the recent study she co-authored found that one in four people with the condition were able to achieve complete mental health, while 43 per cent were free of all symptoms.

What helps with recovery from mental health disorders?

The road to recovery when it comes to mental health conditions starts with treatment which could vary and may include options ranging from psychotherapy to medication, or a combination of both.

Early identification also plays an important role in enhancing the chances of long-term recovery.

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"People who go a longer period of time before seeking treatment for depression will do worse in the long run,” Devendorf said.

According to Fuller-Thomson, individuals who use religion or spirituality as coping mechanisms have been found to recover more effectively.

Additionally, she emphasised the importance of having a strong social support system and trusted friends who people can confide in.

However, she pointed out that certain factors can hinder the recovery process.

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These include suffering from chronic pain and poor sleep quality, which impact both mood and functionality, making it harder for individuals to improve overall.

Still, Fuller-Thomson stressed that there is hope for a substantial number of individuals with mental health issues to not only recover but also flourish in life.

“The bottom line is that a large proportion of those with serious mental illness do have recovery, not just recovery to no symptoms, but also recovery to an optimal life, that of happiness and life satisfaction, and warm and supportive relationships,” she said.

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