We Need to Learn More About People Who Flourish After Depression

We know a decent amount about people with depression. At this point, quite a few studies have been done on people who have depression. But we know less about people who used to have depression – and especially about people who used to have depression but are now flourishing.

A new paper by researchers from University of South Florida and George Mason University argues that we need to pay more attention to people who have recovered from depression and now enjoy good mental health. After all, these people represent the ideal outcome for depression treatment, and we might be able to learn something from them.

The authors of the paper point out that we’ve given strangely little notice to people who are thriving after recovering from depression. They refer to this phenomenon as “the curious neglect of high functioning after psychopathology” – why aren’t we intensively studying people who have gone from experiencing mental health conditions to being high-functioning?

In fact, we aren’t even sure exactly how many people with depression go on to fully recover and flourish in their lives. The authors cite previous research approximating that as many as half of people with depression might experience only one episode, then go on to enjoy good mental health.

Part of the reason these people are understudied is because, well, they’re less likely to end up in research studies. Someone who experiences one depressive episode and then gets on with their life is relatively hard to track down for mental health researchers. On the other hand, people with recurrent depression who are chronically in need of mental health treatment are more readily available for studies. Because people who have a depressive episode and then go on to thrive are less visible, we might be underestimating how common they are.

But the authors of the paper argue that it’s worth trying to track these people down. They might have something to teach us.

How are they able to go from experiencing depression to flourishing in their everyday lives, for example? Are they better at seeking out help? Are they simply less vulnerable to depression to begin with – and if so, why do they become depressed in the first place? It’s even possible that they go on to thrive because they’ve had depression – that somehow, the process of experiencing depression and seeking out mental health treatment makes their mental health better than it was before.

These are all speculative ideas suggested by the authors of the paper. The point is that we don’t know, until we start studying these people more in-depth.

People who become “high-functioning after depression” represent the most positive scenario in mental health treatment. It’s possible that these people are actually quite common. In any case, finding out more about these people has the potential to tell us something new about depression and the process of recovery.


  1. Rod Clifford on September 20, 2018 at 3:59 pm

    I suffered with chronic depression for almost 20 years before I started psychotherapy, strangely enough not for depression, although it very quickly became apparent to my psychologist that I was also in an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship.
    That was in 2010, my marriage ended in mid 2011 and by mid 2012 my life had totally crashed and burned.
    I reached the conclusion that I needed to admit myself to psychiatric care I suffered a life threatening illness that saw me return to the UK after 20 years in South Africa.
    I was very high functioning and had a very well paid career at the top of my profession.
    I spent most of 2015 sleeping 15 hours a day, at least for the first 6 months, I was also unable to cope with more than one or two people at a time.
    I started back at work in 2014 in a much more junior role and a third of the salary.
    I’ve been in a much better role since 2015, although still underpaid ☺️ and am in the process of relocating to Portugal, doing the same job for the same company, but working from home in the Algarve.
    This is the realisation of an idea that came about at the beginning of this year and is the planned step towards the next stage of my life with the freedom of an untroubled mind, the self esteem and belief to express the genuine me that was always there but too afraid and distant to flourish.
    I went from days on end when seconds seemed like an eternity to having a vision for my future for the rest of my life.

    • Neil Petersen on September 21, 2018 at 12:19 pm

      Thanks for sharing your story, Rob. And congrats on the move! My experience is that being immersed in a new culture and exploring a new place can be energizing in a way that’s great for overall mental health. Best of luck!