The Number of People Treated for Depression has Tripled

The number of people treated for depression has increased dramatically, most likely due to reduced stigma about mental health problems as well as the availability of new medications, according to a Yale School of Medicine researcher.

The study, published in the January 9 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, was based on two large national surveys and looked at outpatient treatment for depression between 1987 and 1997. The researchers found that the number of people seeking help more than tripled, from .7 percent to 2.3 percent, said Benjamin Druss, M.D., professor of psychiatry and in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale School of Medicine.

Druss said the findings probably indicate that more people are getting treatment for depression rather than a change in prevalence of depression. “Recent years have seen both a reduction of the stigma associated with seeking care for depression, and also broader changes in the organization of medicine,” he said. “The changes also likely reflect the development of new classes of antidepressants that are relatively easy to use and can be prescribed in primary care settings. The first of these newer medications, Prozac, was released soon after the study began.”

The proportion of individuals who used antidepressant medications increased from 37.3 percent to 74.5 percent while the number of people who received psychotherapy declined from 71.1 percent to 60.2 percent, according to the findings. Also, an increasingly large proportion of patients were treated by physicians for their condition and treatment costs were more often covered by third party payers.

“The increase is almost certainly a good thing because the rates of treatment for depression are so low relative to the disease’s prevalence in the community,” Druss said. “But we need a better understanding of whether this increase has occurred in patients with more severe depression or whether it is largely being used in patients with less serious or transient conditions. We also need to know more about the quality of care received by patients who receive treatment.”

The lead author was Mark Olfson, associate professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute.

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