Depression is increasing in the United States. A quick glance at data showing rising diagnostic rates might give the impression that a series of horrible events have plunged millions of people into depression. (Those with different political ideologies are likely to point out various events, but much of the data is available before 2016, so the election can not be solely its own fault.) However, a more nuanced assessment suggests that this is not a story increasing number of depressed Americans. Instead, it shows that people in the US are just as depressed as they used to be – but increasingly looking for the treatment they need.
BlueCross BlueShield (BCBS) published a report on Thursday (1
On the other hand, there are differences between the age groups when it comes to depression diagnoses. The BCBS analysis showed a particularly strong increase in younger adults with a 63% increase in the diagnosis of depression among 12- to 17-year-olds from 2013 to 2016 and a 47% increase in 18- to 34-year-olds.
Other recent reports confirm these findings. A 2017 study, in which the survey results were presented by more than 607,500 adults, found that depression in the US increased from 2005 to 2015, while the 2016 teen-focused study found a strong increase in depression over a similar period recorded. This is part of a broader long-term trend: the depression has been steadily rising in the US since the mid-1930s.
Steve Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, takes the good sign. "I doubt there will be a real increase in cases," he writes in an e-mail. Rather, an increase in the rate at which symptoms of mental illness are detected is suggested.
In 2016, the US Preventive Services Task Force advised GPs to conduct universal depression testing for anyone over the age of 12, even those who did not take part in the study considered you depressed. This means that many more people today are being examined for signs of depression than ever before. This could have affected the rising rates of depression, writes Hyman.
There is probably less stigma as well. "More celebrities have gone public, and I have the impression that there is more news," Hyman adds. When well-known names like Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga up to Mayim Bialik and Jon Hamm openly talk about their mental health, this probably helps to counter the notion that depression is a condition they need to be ashamed of. Stigma still exists, but as more and more people talk openly about their mental states, the people around them and their readers are more likely to recognize their own symptoms and know that they can also get help for depression
Despite the rising rate of depression diagnoses in the US, other aspects of the disease have not changed. "The diagnosis has certainly not improved, and the treatment remains the same as for many years," writes Hyman. Although Hyman says BlueCross data is generally a positive sign as more people are likely to get the treatment they need, the high rates of depression in the US that the report identifies are nothing to celebrate.
The high rates of depression are rightly worrisome, but at least they indicate that fewer people are depressed and refuse. Ideally, as more people are openly confronted with their depression and more health professionals are realizing the extent of mental illness in their patients, the demand for better treatments will grow. Policymakers may begin to recognize the rising rates of depression diagnoses as a sign that certain features of society today that contribute to mental illness, such as widespread isolation, are unsustainable and unhealthy. Perhaps, as the rate of depression diagnoses continues to grow, we may be looking for ways to prevent the disease rather than treating it.