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Todd B. Kashdan Ph.D.


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A New Perspective on How People Recover From


Depression
New research on not just recovering, but thriving after emotional difficulties.
Posted Jul 31, 2018

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The World Health Organization considers depression


to be a monumental problem, specifically the leading
cause of disability worldwide. That’s ahead of widely
publicized contenders, such as cancer, heart disease,
and diabetes. Reading the news today, you might
conclude that depression leads inevitably to suicides,
school shootings, or altercations with the police. Can
this darkest of human frailties ever point the way to
something better?

Our personal and professional experiences say yes.

Source: Mamasuba/Shutterstock
One of us (Rottenberg, running The Mood and
Emotion Lab) saw this 25 years ago from the barrel of a
depression. After a chronic struggle, he was ready to throw in the towel. He dropped out of graduate school and, after
trying every medication advertised on television, was hospitalized. It seemed like his life was over. Extinguished. Done
for. After this shattering experience, somehow, some way, he pulled it together. He got married. Had a child. Became a
psychologist. Focused on the study of depression. Got tenure. Somehow, some way, a grotesque experience led to an
unexpected second act: After depression, little things didn’t rattle him, and life had a purpose, maybe even more than
before.

One of us (Kashdan, running The Well-Being Lab) saw this as a new clinical science trainee, helping clients grapple
with crippling social fear. Clients saw themselves as a bundle of massive, irreconcilable flaws. They feared being seen,
feared meeting people, feared disclosure, even feared standing with others in an elevator. They were sure that social
exposure meant scrutiny, then rejection. Tiny actions in treatment slowly dissolved these beliefs. Week one, say hello to
someone. Week two, ask someone about their midnight guilty pleasure. Week three, go out with people and play
volleyball. But the weirdest thing happened months after treatment ended. Baby steps somehow became giant leaps.
Patients now spoke of positive self-regard, intimacy and laughter, and ambitious accomplishments. The goal of therapy
was to help clients lose their crippling fear. Something else happened. They were thriving. How?

Struck by these observations, we joined forces to find out what is known about human rebirth after the calamity of
depression. What explains it? How often does it happen?

In an article just published in Perspectives on Psychological Science with our students, we reached a shocking
conclusion: Experts have virtually nothing to say about this topic.

Instead, consensus opinion in psychology, psychiatry, and public health go something like this:

     “Depression is a chronic and recurrent condition, with each experienced depressive episode increasing the risk of
future episodes,” as Dr. David Solomon and colleagues from the National Institute of Mental Health put in 2000.

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1/19/2019 A New Perspective on How People Recover From Depression | Psychology Today
     Or, as Saba Moussavi and colleagues from the World Health Organization wrote in the Lancet, “Without treatment,
depression has the tendency to assume a chronic course, be recurrent, and over time to be associated with increasing US
disability.”

We summed up the malaise of world-leading thinkers — If there is one piece of bankable expert consensus, it is that
depression is a recurrent and chronic condition that is difficult to contain, even when treated.

In other words, the scientific literature clearly states that if you’ve had depression once, it will probably strike you down
again and lay waste to your good years (ironically, disseminating this idea might exacerbate people’s depression). You’ll
be impaired at work, your relationships will suffer, and your happiness and sense of meaning in life will be obstructed.

Sadly, depression can be a lifelong problem. But as we dug more deeply into the corpus of epidemiological studies, we
also saw signs of better outcomes. For example, in rare longitudinal studies that modeled the whole population, 40 to
60 percent of people who had depression once never experienced a recurrence, even after being questioned years
and even decades later. Thriving, or well-being, was not measured directly in these studies, but it stands to reason that
many of these people who had depression once, and shook it over the long term, were living better than the average
human being without depression, experiencing frequent positive emotions, good relationships, autonomy in thought
and action, and meaningful goals.

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.

For a copy of the article this post is based on, CLICK HERE AND DOWNLOAD.

Drs. Jonathan Rottenberg and Todd B. Kashdan are Professors of Psychology at the University of South Florida and
George Mason University, respectively. Jonathan Rottenberg is the author of The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins
of the Depression Epidemic. Todd Kashdan is the author of Curious? and The Upside of Your Dark Side.

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About the Author

Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at George Mason University and the author of The Upside of
Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your 'Good' Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment.
   

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