Study Shows People Who Spend a Lifetime Mentally Healthy Are Abnormal
Man smiling while sitting in support group therapy

Study Shows People Who Spend a Lifetime Mentally Healthy Are Abnormal

People who go through life without experiencing any form of mental illness just aren’t quite right.

It may sound like an oxymoron, and it’s to be read a little tongue in cheek, of course. But it’s true. And a new study in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology proves it.

According to the study by researchers at Duke University, of almost 1,000 subjects followed birth to mid-life, only 171 (17 percent) did not make it to middle age without a mental disorder diagnosis.1

“Surprisingly … never-diagnosed study members were not born into unusually well-to-do families, nor did their enduring mental health follow markedly sound physical health, or unusually high intelligence,” the researchers note in the abstract. “Instead, they tended to have an advantageous temperament/personality style, and negligible family history of mental disorder. As adults, they report superior educational and occupational attainment, greater life satisfaction and higher-quality relationships.”

Participants were from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, a four-decade longitudinal investigation of health and behavior in Denedin, New Zealand. The studied individuals were all born between April 1972 and March 1973.

These study members were evaluated for mental disorders at ages 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26, 32 and 38. Some participants reported repeated bouts of mental illness (and were diagnosed as such) over the course of the years; others had one (or in the case of the “abnormal” subjects, none). The study used DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) criteria current from the times the diagnoses were made. The authors did check in with friends of the subjects who were listed as contacts on the survey to make sure they were providing an accurate view of their self-reported behaviors.

People who do not ever experience mental illness are so far from the norm, the authors say, “Our findings draw attention to ‘enduring mental health’ as a revealing psychological phenotype and suggest it deserves further study.”

Phrase “Everybody’s Mentally Ill” Has Never Held More Water

Of course, instead we tend to hear about mental “illness” being studied as a highly-stigmatized pathology. This study casts a dark shadow on the stigma surrounding mental illness, given how prevalent it clearly is in our society.

“Within the past decade, estimates from an array of population-representative samples have converged to suggest that a diagnostic disturbance in emotional or behavioral functioning at some point in the life course is near-universal,” the authors wrote. “We aim to draw attention to just how common mental disorders are, and, in doing so, inform discussions surrounding etiological theories of mental disorder, societal perceptions of stigma, and prevention efforts.”

The researchers said studying the long-term mentally healthy is akin to studying centenarians – why do some people live so long? And such research into those who live long lives is proving to yield answers.

The study found that those who had not experienced mental health problems had highly adaptive personalities, higher-than-average self-control, strong social relationships and a generally positive outlook on life.

Mental health professionals interviewed in various media reports said they hope news of the study helps to normalize mental illness and reduce the stigma that prevents far too many people from seeking help.

Treatment Along the Way Prevents Problems From Worsening Long-Term

Per the National Institute on Mental Illness, one in five adults experiences mental illness each year.2 But mental illness often is transient – at some point in almost everyone’s life, we experience it, whether it comes in the form of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress or any other conditions that can be triggered by trauma.

Unfortunately, these periods often come with bouts of alcoholism and drug abuse. This tends to be brought on by a person’s natural tendency to self-medicate. This makes most everyone feel worse instead of better, especially in the long-term, potentially leading to a substance use disorder co-occurring with the mental health diagnosis.

“The observations that a mental disorder affects the overwhelming majority of persons at some point in life and that its course is often transient suggests a need to alter our conception of what it means to be mentally ill,” the authors say. “For many, an episode of mental disorder is like influenza, bronchitis, anemia, kidney stones or a fractured bone – these conditions are highly prevalent. Sufferers experience impaired functioning in social and occupational roles, and many seek medical care, but most recover.”

They conclude, “Put another way, such research affirms that discussions of ‘abnormal psychology’ should recognize that ‘normality’ refers to the absence of a diagnosable disturbance in emotional or behavioral functioning at the present time – not across the life course. It is our hope that increased public recognition of this fact will reduce the stigma experienced by individuals diagnosed with a mental disorder, perhaps leading to higher rates of treatment uptake as well as better clinical outcomes.”

1. Schaefer, J. et al. (2017, February). 126(2), 212-224. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Retrieved March 9, 2017, from
2. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Mental Health by the Numbers. Retrieved March 9, 2017, from

Written by David Heitz