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Mental health predicts future risk of mental illness (USA)

January 13, 2011

A recent study shows a predictive relationship between a change in one’s level of mental health and the risk of mental illness. The authors analyzed data from the 1995 and 2005 Midlife in the United States (MIDUS) surveys, including the responses of 1723 adults regarding their positive mental health (a combination of feeling good and functioning well in life) and whether they had experienced a mental health disorder (major depressive episode, panic or generalized anxiety disorder) over the past 12 months.

The researchers found that rates of the three mental health disorders, as well as levels of reported mental health (rated as flourishing, moderate or languishing), did not change in the general population over the period studied. However, the rates did change at the individual level. Half of the mental illness reported in 2005 were new cases (since 1995) and approximately half of the respondents had a mental health status change to flourishing or languishing in 2005. Adults who maintained a languishing level of mental health were six times as likely to have had a mental illness in 2005 as those who maintained a flourishing level. Adults who declined to languishing in 2005, from moderate or flourishing ten years before, were eight times as likely to have had a mental illness in 2005, compared to those flourishing at both time points. Likewise, those who improved their mental health status demonstrated a lower likelihood of mental illness in 2005; however, their odds of mental illness in 2005 were no better than those who remained flourishing throughout. The authors argue that the demonstrated relationship supports the mental health promotion and protection belief that gains in mental health decrease the odds of mental illness occurring, and losses in mental health increase the odds of mental illness.

The study also showed an overall increase in the prevalence of mental illness among women, younger participants and those with less education. This was demonstrated regardless of the baseline mental health level of these groups. The authors suggest that mental health promotion and protection are needed for these groups, as well as the general population, to complement conventional treatment and risk reduction measures for mental illness.

See “Change in Level of Positive Mental Health as a Predictor of Future Risk of Mental Illness, American Journal of Public Health (December 2010; 100[12]: 2366-2371), available at

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