Greater numbers of Americans are depressed today than a decade ago, and the increase has been especially striking among adolescents, according to a study published online this week in the journal Psychological Medicine.
Depression rose by almost 1 percent among the general U.S. population between 2005 and 2015, but it climbed by 4 percent among young people aged 12 to 17, the study found.
“Depression appears to be increasing among Americans overall, and especially among youth,” said Renee Goodwin, the study’s senior author and an epidemiologist at Columbia University, in a released statement. “Because depression impacts a significant percentage of the U.S. population and has serious individual and societal consequences, it is important to understand whether and how the prevalence of depression has changed over time so that trends can inform public health and outreach efforts.”
For their study, Goodwin and her colleagues analyzed data collected from more than 600,000 people aged 12 and older who participated between 2005 and 2015 in the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Some of the questions on the survey are designed to assess the presence of depression.
The analysis revealed that depression increased significantly over the study’s time period — rising from 6.6 percent in 2005 to 7.3 percent in 2015. The most rapid increase, however, was among people aged 12 to 17 — from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 12.7 percent in 2015.
The rise in depression was also greatest among whites, people in the lowest and highest income groups, and people in the highest education groups (some college or a college degree or more). These findings are in line with other research on groups most at risk for drug use, deaths from drug use, and suicide, the researchers point out.
The role of stress
Although many environmental and genetic risk factors are implicated in depression, one that may explain at least part of the recent increase in the illness’s prevalence is stress.
“The majority of US adults report that their level of stress has increased over time,” Goodwin and her colleagues explain in their paper. “Money and work are cited as the most common reasons for stress for US adults, and low income, job loss/unemployment, and negative life events are risk factors for depression.”
The researchers also point out that their study’s time frame included the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Other research has suggested that mental health problems — and suicides — increased in the immediate aftermath of that economic downturn.
Family economics may also explain some of the increase in depression among teenagers, the researchers add, although they also note that “risk factors derived from the use of new technologies, such as cyberbullying, and problematic social media use” are likely involved as well.
Needed: greater access to treatment
Goodwin and her colleagues hope their research will help “guide the allocation of funding and resources toward the subgroups that are facing the greatest individual and societal consequences from depression.”
“Depression is most common among those with least access to any health care, including mental health professionals. This includes young people and those with lower levels of income and education,” said Goodwin in the released statement. “Despite this trend, recent data suggest that treatment for depression has not increased, and a growing number of Americans, especially socioeconomically vulnerable individuals and young persons, are suffering from untreated depression.”
“Depression that goes untreated is the strongest risk factor for suicide behavior,” she added, “and recent studies show that suicide attempts have increased in recent years, especially among young women.”
FMI: An abstract of the study can be found on Psychological Medicine’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.