Science finally confirms what has long been obvious; we live in a mad world.

Episodes of mental illness that knock a person completely off balance are still considered unusual, and even shameful in 2018, yet evidence is mounting that is it lifelong mental stability that is abnormal. 

We have all heard that 1 in 4 people will experience mental illness at some point. But recent research suggests mental illnesses are so common that almost everyone will develop at least one diagnosable mental disorder at some point during their lifetime. Most people will never receive treatment for it even as their relationships, job performance and quality of life greatly suffer or deteriorate completely.

The infamous 1in 4 figure was reached through large surveys, involving thousands of participants. They then relied on survey respondents’ having accurate memory of feelings and behaviors months, years and even decades in the past. It turns out we are not very good reporters of our own mental health history.

A study published last year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, which closely followed one generation of New Zealanders, all born in the same town, from birth to midlife. The scientists checked in with the participants every few years to assess if there had been any mental illness in-between visits. They found that collecting reports from people like this over time, the percentage of people who develop a diagnosable mental illness at any point in their lives jumps to well over 80 percent. Approximately 17% of people do not develop mental illness strong enough to be identified and diagnosed using standard diagnostic tools. Because some individuals may not have remained mentally well in the years between assessments yet reported that they were – perhaps due to shame or simply forgetting how bad it was, the real amount that did not experience a mental illness may be even less.

This means you are more likely to experience a mental illness that substantially impairs your ability to function than you are to develop diabetes, heart disease or cancer—combined, These findings have been confirmed by studies in New Zealand, Switzerland and the U.S.

People who never develop a mental illness are actually quite remarkable – like those rare few who sail on old age without ever experiencing a serious physical illness. It’s possible that studying this mentally robust group could improve things significantly for the rest of us. Who are these lucky people? The study found that those with enduring mental health usually had two things in common: First, they had little or no family history of mental illness and, second, they tended to have been born with personalities that provided them with advantage; from school age they expressed fewer negative emotions, got along better with people and possessed more self-control. It is interesting to note that these outliers were not any richer, more intelligent or physically healthy than the rest of the community.

The implications of this new perspective on mental illness are profound and far-reaching. Moving way beyond issues of stigma and prejudice now, towards questions of how we might function better as a species given this true picture of what comes at us during a lifetime. How much more successful might we be collectively if we learned, in the same way we learn how to take care of our teeth and our skin, to take proper care of our minds?

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