Depression is on the rise in the United States. A quick glance at the data, which show rising diagnosis rates, could give the impression that a series of terrible events plunged millions of people into depression. (Those with different political ideologies will likely point to different events, but much of the data pre-date 2016, so the election can’t be entirely to blame.) A more nuanced evaluation, though, suggests this isn’t a tale of increasing numbers of depressed Americans. Instead, it shows that people in the US are just as depressed as they ever were—but are increasingly seeking the treatment they need.
Health-insurance company BlueCross BlueShield (BCBS) released a report on Thursday (May 10) showing that, according to analysis of the 41 million people it insures, depression diagnoses increased 33% from 2013 to 2016. Though, overall, women are more than twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression, both men and women saw the same 33% increase over the three-year period.
On the other hand, there are differences between age groups when it comes to depression diagnoses. The BCBS analysis showed a particularly sharp rise among younger adults, with a 63% increase in depression diagnosis among 12-17 year olds from 2013 to 2016, and a 47% rise among 18-34 year olds.
Other recent reports corroborate these findings. One 2017 study that included the survey results submitted by more than 607,500 adults found that depression in the US increased from 2005 to 2015, while 2016 research focused on adolescents found a sharp rise in depression over a similar time period. This is part of a broader longterm trend: 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 this a good sign. “I doubt that there is a real increase in incident cases,” he writes in an email. Rather, it suggests an increase in the rate at which symptoms of the mental illness are recognized.
In 2016, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended general practitioners implement universal depression screenings for everyone over the age of 12, even those who don’t consider themselves depressed. That means that far more people are being evaluated today for signs of depression than ever before. This might well have had an impact on the rising depression rates, writes Hyman.
There’s also likely less stigma. “More celebrities have gone public about mental health issues, and my impression is that there is more news coverage,” adds Hyman. Indeed, when well-known names ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Lady Gaga to Mayim Bialik and Jon Hamm speak openly about their mental health, it likely helps combat the notion that depression is a condition to be ashamed of. Stigma certainly still exists, but as more and more people talk about their mental health conditions candidly, it’s more and more likely that those around them and who read about them will recognize their own symptoms and know that they, too, can get help for depression.
Despite the rising rates of depression diagnoses in the US, other aspects of the illness have not changed. “Diagnostics have certainly not improved, and treatment remains the same as it has been for many years,” writes Hyman. Though Hyman says the BlueCross data is generally a positive sign, as it suggests that 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 a cause for concern but, at the very least, they suggest that fewer people are depressed and in denial. Ideally, as more people openly confront their depression, and more healthcare professionals recognize the extend of the mental illness in their patients, demand will grow for better treatments. Policymakers could start to recognize the rising rates of depression diagnoses as a sign that certain features of contemporary society contributing to mental illness, such as widespread isolation, are unsustainable and unhealthy. Perhaps, if the rate of depression diagnoses keeps growing, we will start to look into ways to prevent the illness, rather than merely treat it.