Everybody Hurts: Bouts Of Depression Far More Common Than Believed, Yale Study Finds

New research shows millions of Americans experience symptoms of depression, even if things aren’t going badly for them.

Seniors are more likely to ignore symptoms and not take care of themselves, the study shows.

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — For decades, the general attitude toward depression was to ignore it, sweep it under the rug, and get back to solving “real problems.” Today, society is more willing to have a nuanced discussion about depression as a legitimate disease. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that a new Yale University study finds far more Americans battle periodic major depressive episodes than previously believed.

Prior data indicates that roughly 17% of American women and 10% of men have a “history” of major depressive episodes (MDEs). According to these latest findings, however, those percentages in reality are closer to 30% for women and 17% for men. Researchers blame “recall error,” or memory lapses while reporting one’s medical history, for the previous statistics’ inaccuracies.

Moreover, for their calculations, the study’s authors constructed and utilized a simulation model capable of producing lifetime depression estimates.

“Major depressive episodes are far more common than we thought,” comments head researcher Jamie Tam, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management, in a release. “Our model shows that the probability of someone having a first major depressive episode is especially high during adolescence. We also know from other research that having a first major depressive episode increases the likelihood you’ll have a second one. This means that anything we can do to prevent or treat episodes among young people could lead to larger health benefits over the course of their life.”

Depression can set in — even when life is good

What exactly is a major depressive episode? By it’s very definition a MDE usually lasts for at least two weeks and is characterized by intense and constant feelings of sadness and hopelessness. Oftentimes, these episodes coincide with weight gain or loss, loss of interest in hobbies, suicidal thoughts, constant fatigue, and sleep routine fluctuations. A person’s life doesn’t have to necessarily be going badly for a depressive episode to take hold. In many cases, these episodes persist despite positive life developments.


“If you think about chronic health conditions like heart disease, we do a lot to identify people who might be at risk for additional health events like heart attacks because that group would benefit from maintenance treatment and clinical monitoring,” professor Tam explains. “We don’t do such a great job when it comes to mental health conditions. So, if we’re able to assess how many people actually have histories of depression, that also tells us that more people are at risk of experiencing more depressive episodes.”

With these findings in mind, the team at Yale says that preemptive mental health programs screening for, and trying to prevent, depression before it occurs could prove useful for far more Americans than previously believed.

Seniors more likely to ignore their symptoms

Also of note was the finding that older Americans are especially likely to hide their depressive episodes. For Americans over 65, over 70% of participants had neglected to report at least some depressive episodes.

Additionally, older adults tend to experience “minor depression” frequently as well. Minor depression is characterized by negative thoughts and hopelessness that don’t quite meet the requirements for a full blown major depression diagnosis. Tam and her team speculate these findings regarding older Americans may be holdovers from decades past when depression wasn’t taken as seriously as it is today.

“Unfortunately, many people with depression or with histories of depression don’t access, or don’t have access to, treatment or support,” professor Tam concludes. “There’s a broader problem in our society of mental health not receiving the same attention and investment of resources compared to physical health conditions.”

The study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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