U of T news

Close to 40 per cent of formerly suicidal Canadians reach complete mental health

“There is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel for many suicidal individuals,” says U of T researcher.

“When individuals are in the depths of suicidal despair, it is hard for them to imagine they will ever feel better,” says Esme Fuller-Thomson. But new findings suggest that a large minority of suicidal individuals recover to the point of optimal well-bein

More than one third of formerly suicidal Canadians have reached a state of complete mental health, says a new study from researchers at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.

The study, published online in the Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour journal, was co-authored by Philip Baiden, a PhD student, and Esme Fuller-Thomson, Sandra Rotman Endowed Chair in Social Work and interim director of the Institute for Life Course and Aging.

U of T News spoke to Fuller-Thomson about the key findings of the study and what they mean for suicidal individuals, their families and health practitioners.

What are the most important findings of your study?

We were delighted to discover that almost two of every five formerly suicidal Canadians (38 per cent) have reached a state of complete mental health. They had not only banished their suicidal thoughts, they were also free of any mental illness or substance dependence in the preceding year and reported almost daily happiness or life satisfaction, and social and psychological wellbeing.

With a nationally representative sample of more than 2,800 formerly suicidal respondents, we have a great deal of confidence in the accuracy of these results. Our findings suggest there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel for many suicidal individuals.

Most research to date has had a much narrower conception of recovery that was based on merely the absence of suicidal symptoms, rather than this much broader concept of flourishing in life.

What are some of the key factors associated with achieving complete mental health among Canadians who had ever seriously considered suicide?

One of our most interesting findings is that among formerly suicidal individuals, those who have someone they could confide in were seven times more likely to have complete mental health. This finding is in keeping with the large body of research that has consistently demonstrated that individuals with greater social support and who have someone they can count on are less likely to suffer psychological distress and other mental illness.

Formerly suicidal individuals who reported their religious beliefs gave them strength to face difficulties were more likely to be in complete mental health.

Among Canadians who had seriously considered suicide, those who were older, female and who had higher incomes were more likely to report complete mental health. For example, those aged 60 and older were twice as likely as those in their 20s to have complete mental health.

Conversely, what factors deter formerly suicidal people from reaching complete mental health?

Those who had three or more adverse childhood experiences (e.g. sexual abuse, physical abuse, parental domestic violence) were much less likely to be in complete mental health when compared to those who had not experienced any childhood adversities.

Perhaps it is not surprising that those with chronic debilitating pain, functional limitations and severe insomnia were less likely to report complete mental health. Similarly, a history of alcohol dependence, anxiety disorders, major depressive and bipolar disorders were each associated with lower odds of being in complete mental health.

How will these findings benefit suicidal individuals, their families and health practitioners?

When individuals are in the depths of suicidal despair, it is hard for them to imagine they will ever feel better. Our findings suggest that a large minority of suicidal individuals recover to the point of optimal well-being. They are happy almost every day and have positive social relationships and a complete absence of mental illness, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. We hope this information is comforting to those in an acute episode and to their loved ones.

Our findings will also help in targeting and outreach to formerly suicidal patients who are less likely to reach this complete mental health – in particular, younger individuals, men, those who are socially isolated and those in chronic pain. More research is needed, but it appears targeting chronic pain and insomnia may be a good strategy to enhance long-term well-being among those who have been suicidal.

The importance of having a confidant for complete mental health suggests that interventions to promote healthy social networks among isolated suicidal patients may be particularly helpful.