The 10th of October 2016 was World Mental Health Day. It was an amazing effort by everyone involved, and as I scrolled through post after post on my newsfeed, it made me so happy to see how open everyone was about mental health and how willing they all were to talk about it. The stigma surrounding mental health seems, slowly but surely, to be falling away.
What surprised me a little more was the fact that on that day, two of my closest friends opened up to me about having depression – and it struck me that it seemed as if more people I knew were suffering with depression than ever before. My friends, family members, even celebrities… more and more names kept appearing. It made me wonder: what’s really happening? Is depression on the rise?
It’s not something that the literature disagrees with, at any rate. If the numbers are to be believed, you are ten times more likely to suffer with depression today than you were in 1945. Antidepressant usage in the U.S. increased by nearly 400% from 1988 to 2008. Some researchers have even termed our current era as “an age of melancholy“. The society we live in seems to be damaging our mental health in ways it never did before, with rates of depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders climbing. Or is it?
The success of initiatives like World Mental Health Day 2016 is down to the fact that we are far more open and accepting now than ever before about anything and everything to do with mental health. We talk about it more. And that’s a good thing – with increased awareness comes increased understanding, and with increased understanding comes a more informed, positive attitude towards mental health.
Research from our very own Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience in 2010 found that anti-stigma awareness programme, Time to Change, was having genuinely profound effects on the amount of stigma and discrimination experienced by those with mental health problems. With this in mind, it seems logical to think that perhaps, as stigma and discrimination go down, the number of people who are willing to talk about their mental health issues goes up. So are more people depressed today – or are we just more willing to admit it?
This is something we can investigate. What about the older generations? Surely even if they were unable to discuss their own mental health, they will be able to remember if they have ever felt depressed. If we ask them to be retrospective, and to look back on whether they have ever shown any depressive symptoms during their lifetime, we can work out whether rates today are genuinely higher. Indeed, research has shown that, using retrospective data, older generations have suffered less with depression than younger generations today, even after adjusting for increased life experience which may potentially put them at risk for depression.
So… depression is increasing?
If you work in psychological research, you know how unreliable retrospective data can be. In fact, a study in 2004 demonstrated that recall of depressive symptoms is extremely poor. Having surveyed participants at ages 15, 16, 18 and 21 about their depression symptoms, researchers asked these participants to recall these symptoms at the age of 25. Only 4% of those without previous diagnoses recalled key depressive symptoms, while only 44% of those with a diagnosis were able to recall key symptoms. So the likelihood is, if you’re asking older people whether they have ever had depression, they may not be able to give accurate answers.
While I’m not saying anything’s conclusive , it’s clear that the relationship between our increasing openness about our own mental health and increasing prevalence of disorders like depression is a complex one.
Although the fact that more people with depression are actually coming forward about it may make detecting genuine changes in prevalence harder, it’s a problem we should be glad to have. After all, the more people who come forward, the more people will receive the help and support they need .
So let’s keep talking about mental health. It’s worth doing.
To end, here’s a particularly special quote from my friend on World Mental Health Day:
“Mental health is such an important issue, not just today but every day, so I will never quite understand why people do not speak openly about it. I for one know how helpful it was to acknowledge that it was not only myself who felt trapped by a mental illness.
Once you start speaking openly you will be surprised how many people, including your friends, are going through the same and you will not feel quite so lonely. This realisation helped me an unbelievable amount through recovery, so talk to your friends and make sure you’re the friend who listens. Don’t let your illness define you.”