Dr. Fuller-Thompson. Mallika Makkar/THE VARSITY

“Of everybody who has ever seriously considered suicide in Canada — this is a representative sample, so you can say that — 38 percent of them have reached a state of complete mental health in the past 12 months.”  This is the main conclusion drawn from Drs. Philip Baiden and Esme Fuller-Thomson’s newest study.  The two researchers from the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work performed a secondary analysis on various data from Statistics Canada’s 2012 Canadian Community Health Survey — Mental Health. The Stats Can survey collected information regarding the “ mental health status, access to and perceived need for formal and informal services and supports, functioning and disability, and covariates”  of 25,113 Canadians.

Baiden and Fuller-Thomson noted that, of Statistics Canada’s surveyed participants, 2,844 reported that they had experienced suicidal ideas at some point in their life. Their study assessed information regarding the social support resources, reported by this subsample of participants. “It was an ideal sample.”  says Fuller-Thomson of the sample size — the magnitude of which allows for reasonable generalizability of the study’s results to the Canadian population at large. Excluded from the Statistics Canada sample’s participants were citizens of the Canadian territories, Canadian citizens living on reservations, and members of the Canadian Armed Forces.

According to Fuller-Thomson, she and Baiden sought to assess how many of the 2,844 participants that had formerly considered suicide were, at the time of the Statistics Canada survey, “no longer suicidal, but […] flourishing.”  They amassed data measuring scores on diagnostic scales for various mental illnesses, each of which, Baiden asserts, “ was very robust, following the WHO criteria of what the major diagnoses are. So we looked at major depressive episodes, we look at general anxiety disorder, [and] substance dependence… We also took into account experience of maltreatment before age 18.”  Baiden and Fuller-Thomson then assessed the extent to which each of these participants was “flourishing”  at the time of the Statistics Canada data collection.

As Fuller-Thomson explains, the idea of “flourishing”  that she and Baiden worked with for their study came from the work of Emory University psychologist Corey Keyes, who distinguishes between an absence of mental illness in an individual and his or her state as mentally healthy. With this established, she describes the three major components that comprise “complete mental health,”  only the first of these being an absence of mental illness within the past year; Fuller-Thomson qualifies the term “ mental illness”  as it is used in terms of this first component as encompassing depressive disorders, bipolar disorders, generalized anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts, ideation, or action. To fulfill the requirements of the second component, participants must respond that they have either felt happy “every day” or “almost every day”  over the past year, or, have felt satisfied with their life every day or almost every day of the past year. Finally, the third component assesses participants’ social and psychological well-being over the past year via eleven questions pertaining to each of these factors. Participants must answer that they experience six of the social and positive self-esteem situations every day or almost every day in order to be considered completely mentally healthy.

Evidently, this definition of “complete mental health”  is quite extensive. “You really have to be doing well…This is where we want the world to get to, right?”  says Fuller-Thomson. Nevertheless, she acknowledges the incredibly high standards that the complete-mental health model enforces: “This is a pretty high bar we’ve got. If you’d said ‘How often in the last month have you been happy?’ and you said ‘Oh, once a week.’ you don’t make it. So, certainly don’t be too distressed that 62 per cent weren’t in complete mental health. They still could’ve been doing fine.”            

According to Fuller-Thomson, the importance of social support is among the study’s key findings, as well as among the most relevant for therapeutic practice: “ And so we found some really interesting things about having a confidante. So if you have just one person, or more, but at least one person to turn to and to confide in, you’re doing so much better.”  In fact, she clarifies, when this variable was controlled among participants (that is, excluded in statistical analyses), achievement of complete mental health dropped from 38 per cent to five per cent.  Fuller-Thomson suggests this finding may provide incentive for further research as to how to develop nurturing environments to assist in the healing process of those who have experienced or are experiencing suicidal ideation or action. “We’re totally excited about 38 [percent], but wouldn’t it be great if it were 60 or 70 [percent]?”             

Ultimately, Baiden says, he and Fuller-Thomson hope to use other data from the Statistics Canada survey to assess aspects of different vulnerable populations. “ So, yeah it’s a very exciting study for us,”  he says.  “I just want to emphasize that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,”  concludes Fuller Thomson, “a very bright light.”

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