4 in 5 people experience a mental health disorder by midlife. What do we know about those who don’t?

You might be familiar with the often quoted statistic that 1 in 4 or 1 in 5 people experience mental health difficulties. What you might not be aware of is that is the answer if people are answering about what they are experiencing at that particular point in time. Long-term studies following the same people over time show that more than 4 out of 5 people (actually 87%) have experienced a mental health disorder by the time they reach age 38. This radically changes our understanding, meaning that mental health disorders are far more widely experienced than previously thought. In this show, I talk with Jonathan Schaefer at the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University in the USA, and his work looking at the data generated by New Zealand’s Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study and that research team. We talk about the idea of enduring mental health: that is, what is it about the 13% of people that defines those that do not experience a mental health disorder by age 38, and what this might mean for ‘social investment’ approaches and universal mental health care provision, amongst a range of other topics.

Here is the link to the paper we talk about in this week’s show:

Here is the abstract for some context:

We review epidemiological evidence indicating that most people will develop a diagnosable mental disorder, suggesting that only a minority experience enduring mental health. This minority has received little empirical study, leaving the prevalence and predictors of enduring mental health unknown. We turn to the population-representative Dunedin cohort, followed from birth to midlife, to compare people never-diagnosed with mental disorder (N 171; 17% prevalence) to those diagnosed at 1–2 study waves, the cohort mode (N 409). Surprisingly, compared to this modal group, never-diagnosed Study members were not born into unusually well-to-do families, nor did their enduring mental health follow markedly sound physical health, or unusually high intelligence. Instead, they tended to have an advantageous temperament/personality style, and negligible family history of mental disorder. As adults, they report superior educational and occupational attainment, greater life satisfaction, and higher-quality relationships. Our findings draw attention to “enduring mental health” as a revealing psychological phenotype and suggest it deserves further study.

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