The public “deserve to know” that there is an overlooked subset of people who thrive after major depression

More research is needed into people who experience "high functioning after depression."

Depression is a chronic, recurrent, lifelong condition. Well, that's the current orthodox view – but it is overstated, argues a team of psychologists led by Jonathan Rottenberg at the University of South Florida. "A significant subset of people recover and thrive after depression, yet research on such individuals has been rare," they write in their recent paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science. They propose a definition for "high functioning after depression" (HFAD); argue that the advice given to people with depression need not be so gloomy; and lay out key areas for future research.


The "gloomy" view of depression is relatively recent, the researchers argue. Just a generation or two ago, conventional wisdom held that depression was the opposite – transient and self-limiting. "But what if neither the older orthodoxy nor the new view of depression fully captures the truth?", Rottenberg and his colleagues ask. "What if, instead, two variants of depression operate simultaneously – a grim chronically-recurring, lifelong variant, and a relatively benign, time-limited variant?"

Long-term studies certainly suggest that a substantial population of people are affected by a burdensome, recurrent form of the disorder. But Rottenberg's team cite three studies finding that an average of 40 to 50 per cent of people who suffer an episode of depression don't go on to experience another (for example, this study in Sweden) – but overall these individuals have been little studied. "This omission, and the field's lack of focus on good outcomes after depression more broadly, virtually guarantees an unduly pessimistic impression of depression's course", Rottenberg and co write – and this is an impression they would like to see changed.

HFAD has been overlooked in part, they argue, because researchers, influenced by the current view, have focused on finding factors associated with chronicity and recurrence. Also, people with recurrent depression are highly likely to be over-represented in depression studies simply because, when researchers put a call out for subjects with depression, these people are statistically more likely to be suffering at the time, and so to be recruited.

To be categorised as experiencing HFAD requires more than simply remitting or recovering from the symptoms of major depression for at least a year, Rottenberg and his colleagues add. An individual must also have achieved "high end-state functioning" – doing well at work and home and socially, and reporting "robust" wellbeing – feeling satisfied with life and enjoying high levels of self-acceptance, for instance.

With such powers of recovery, what leads people who exhibit HFAD to become depressed in the first place? "One hypothesis might be that HFAD represents a more psychosocial form of depression that is more likely to be precipitated by environmental adversity, such as death, a break up of a romantic relationship or a job loss," the team suggest.

Whether or not this is the case clearly needs exploring. And they point to other big questions. For instance: Are people who are HFAD more likely to have sought help while they were depressed? Does depression itself play a role in triggering the long-term improvement seen in HFAD? (Something similar has been proposed for trauma). Can we apply what is learnt about HFAD to enhance clinical interventions?

What does HFAD tell us about thriving after other mental disorders?

There are clearly a lot of questions. But here, at least, is a framework for finding potentially useful answers.

"One reason HFAD needs to be discussed," the researchers write, "is that it is part of the truth, which patients and the broader public are owed. It would be odd if an oncologist did not tell a cancer patient his or her chances of achieving lifetime remission. We submit that a depressed patient also deserves to know. The public deserves to know as well."

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

This article was originally published on BPS Research Digest. Read the original article.

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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