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USF researchers find people can thrive following mental illness

Mark Parker



Andrew Devendorf (left) with his brother, Matt Devendorf. Five years after losing Matt to suicide, Andrew is a USF researcher whose recent study is challenging stereotypes surrounding mental illnesses. Photos provided.

About a week after his acceptance into graduate school, Andrew Devendorf lost his brother to suicide; five years later, the doctoral candidate in clinical psychology is challenging long-held stereotypes surrounding mental illness.

Devendorf led a team of researchers from the University of South Florida whose study into the likelihood of patients with a history of mental illness and substance abuse disorder going on to “thrive” was recently published in Clinical Psychology Science. The study’s findings revealed that despite stereotypes to the contrary, most people suffering from those illnesses could recover and live fulfilling lives.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Devendorf hopes the study will change some perceptions surrounding mental illnesses, something he feels could have helped his brother. According to the National Library of Medicine, 86% of people will experience some form of mental illness by 45. However, Devendorf believes the scientific community needs more research into those who overcome the disease.

“One of the reasons people don’t talk about mental illness or feel comfortable sharing that they have it is possibly due to negative stereotypes,” he said. “That once you have that label of a mental illness, you’re kind of going to have that label for the rest of your life.”

Devendorf said he and his fellow researchers found that notion puzzling because they knew recovery is possible from patients and personal experience. Not only do many recover, but he said some patients find meaning in their suffering or experience a second lease on life.

The study’s findings proved their hypothesis correct. The USF researchers found that 10% of people with a history of mental illness met the strict criteria for thriving. While that may not seem like a large number, Devendorf said it is important to note that just 24% of the 25,000 respondents with no reported mental health disorders met the criteria.

The researchers defined thriving as having no current diagnosis of mental illness and high levels of self-purpose, positive emotions and healthy relationships. Thriving rates varied by condition, and those with a history of substance use and depression were more likely to meet the criteria than patients with a history of bipolar disorder. While the number of people that thrive following a diagnosis was less than half of those without a history of mental illness, Devendorf said the study provides hope.

“We have been presenting this as kind of, that number can be glass half-full or half-empty, depending on how you see it,” he said. “For us, we view it as evidence that people can do really well.”

While 10% of people met the research team’s strict criteria for thriving, Devendorf stressed that many more people generally got better and reported high levels of wellbeing. Among those with a history of mental illness, 67% recovered, meaning they no longer met diagnostic thresholds over the last 12 months.

Diagnostic recovery was also common across all disorders.

“They were able to learn to live and manage their illness and do well in that capacity,” added Devendorf.

He explained that a medical provider often offers a percentage or likelihood of remission when someone receives a cancer diagnosis. Devendorf said the research team found it odd that doctors do not provide patients suffering from mental illnesses with the same recovery statistics.

He hopes this study will spur clinicians to have those conversations with mental health patients instead of signaling that the disorders are inevitably chronic, something he believes could have saved his brother’s life.

Devendorf with fellow members of the USF Mood and Emotion Lab. Dr. Jonathan Rottenberg (second from right) leads the lab and serves as a mentor for Devendorf.

Devendorf said he and his family’s experience with mental health issues led him to study clinical psychology. Growing up, he said there was never much talk about what – if anything – they could do to mitigate the symptoms.

“I think a lot of it was lack of knowledge and what we now scientifically call internalized stigma,” he said. “And those stereotypes – that if you have depression, it’s something that sticks with you for the rest of your life.”

That was the message Devendorf said his brother received from various mental health providers. Doctors told his brother that medication and therapy could help manage his chemical imbalance, but overall, “it’s kind of like your life.”

“Which actually isn’t true,” he added. “I saw how that crippled him because … he didn’t feel like he could do anything.

“If you’re told you can’t get better, it’s like, why try?”

Devendorf said that motivated him to investigate the likelihood of people overcoming mental illnesses. After his admission to grad school in 2017, he realized his mentor was also interested in studying people living fulfilling lives following a diagnosis, something he said resonated with his childhood experiences.

About a week later, Devendorf lost his brother to suicide. Matt Devendorf was 27.

“It was one of the happiest days of my life,” he said. “Then it was one of the darkest times and periods of chaos afterward.”

Devendorf believes the study can help effectuate change in two areas. From a public standpoint he believes people can disseminate more hopeful messaging supported by data. While outcomes vary depending on the patient and condition, he said it is scientifically accurate that most people with a mental illness can get better.

From a scientific perspective, Devendorf noted the study was just the first step in ascertaining if positive outcomes are possible. He now hopes further research will identify the mechanisms that aid patients in their recovery – and more specifically, what enables them to thrive.

For those recently diagnosed with a mental illness, Devendorf offered these words:

“Mental illness is real, serious, and can be life-changing,” he said. “While everyone’s experience with mental illness looks different, we know that most people can benefit with the help of treatment and social support.

“And some people, in the long-term, may even find meaning from these dark and challenging times.”

The LEAP Tampa Bay College Access Network recently launched a new website to connect area college students with mental health resources. For more information, visit the website here.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, the U.S. National Suicided Prevention Lifeline is available anytime by calling 800-273-TALK (8255). The Crisis Text Line also provides confidential support for those in crisis by texting 741741.

To learn more about Devendorf losing his brother, read his story about the experience here.



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