Resilience amongst the long term ill

11 July 2011

People who have a long term debilitating physical illness demonstrate mental resilience according to Understanding Society, the world’s largest longitudinal household study. The first findings reveal that people diagnosed with cancer, diabetes, respiratory or cardiovascular disease report similar mental health scores to those without physical illness.  The survey’s findings suggest that those people who may not be able to function well physically because of an illness do not necessarily suffer problems with their mental health - for example with their concentration, confidence and feelings of strain.

Another surprise finding from the study is that over half (52 per cent) of those indicating high levels of distress and anxiety, and therefore identified as at risk of suffering minor mental illness, still report fairly positive overall mental well-being.

Professor Amanda Sacker, Institute for Social and Economic Research, who analysed the findings, commented: "Initial findings regarding mental health may appear counter-intuitive but it is good to see such resilience amongst those with long term physical illnesses. Understanding Society will continue to follow the same people in years to come as they get older. As they change their health-related behaviours and experience different health, work and family challenges this will give us a good insight into the factors that cause mental health problems and how to provide the best support."

Initial analysis of the data collected in the first survey also found that:

  • self rated mental health did not differ between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • there are no differences between males and females, with 50 per cent rating their overall health as either 'excellent' or 'very good'
  • thirty-seven per cent of males and 38 per cent of females have a long term illness; of these 68 per cent of males and 71 per cent of females reported limitations in the last month. Climbing stairs as well as the amount and kinds of work that can be done were the most common stated, with women tending to report recent limitations more than men
  • asthma, arthritis and high blood pressure are the three most prevalent conditions, each affecting over 10 per cent of the sample
  • overall figures indicate that seven per cent of the total population (approximately 25,000 respondents) have at some point in their lives been diagnosed with clinical depression and that of those people the majority (69 per cent), currently suffer from depression.

Understanding Society is following 40,000 UK households over many years and will revisit health, family life, employment and a range of other aspects of people’s lives. The survey is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and managed by the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. The first findings book is published online at http://research.understandingsociety.org.uk/findings/early-findings.  Individual chapters are also available to download.

The first set of data from Understanding Society is now available for researchers to use in their analysis. It can be accessed via the Economic and Social Data Service.

ESRC Press Office:

Notes for editors:

  1. The findings above are taken from the chapter 'Health over the life course: associations between age, employment status and well-being' in the Understanding Society 'First Findings' publication. The full chapter can be found at http://research.understandingsociety.org.uk/findings/early-findings
  2. Amanda Sacker is Professor of Quantitative Social Science. Her research takes a life course perspective to examining the social epidemiology or the social determinants of health, including differences in health (both physical and mental) by social class, gender and ethnicity.
  3. Cara Booker is a researcher. Her research interests range from exploring the psychosocial and physiological determinants of health over a lifetime to psychological well-being and resilience among the unemployed. Amanda and Cara are both based at ISER.
  4. Understanding Society is a world leading study of the socio-economic circumstances in 40,000 British households. The study allows for deeper analysis of a wide range of sections of the population as they respond to regional, national and international change. Understanding Society will greatly enhance our insight into the pathways that influence peoples longer term occupational trajectories; their health and well-being, their financial circumstances and personal relationships. Understanding Society also breaks new ground with its interdisciplinary focus. The study will capture biomedical data on 20,000 participants and place this alongside rich social histories, helping us weigh the extent to which people's environment influences their health.
  5. Understanding Society has been commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The Research Team is led by the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER) at the University of Essex. The National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) delivers the Study.
  6. The ESRC has contributed £27 million towards the funding of Understanding Society, and have successfully secured a total of £19.4 million from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Large Facilities Capital Fund. A further £2.61 million has been secured from a consortium of Government Departments. This funding will support the first five waves of the study until 2015. It is envisaged that the study will continue for up to 20 years.
  7. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's total budget for 2011/12 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk