Depression Often Misdiagnosed, and Untreated

The New York Times had an interesting article about how depression is often misdiagnosed in the US, and how most people who actually have depression don’t get treatment.  They reference a research study just published in the JAMA Internal Medicine.Depression

This research study performed by Mark Olfson, Carlos Blanco, and Steven C. Marcus, looked at responses from 46,417 people on the Patient Health Questionnaire-2 (PHQ-2) which is a brief screening tool for depression. A score of over 3 indicates depression on this scale.

What did they find? They found that approximately 8.4% of all adults studied had depression, but only 28.7% had received any depression treatment in the previous year! That means 71.3% of the people who suffer depression got no treatment for this depression.

Of those who were being treated for depression, about 30% actually had depression based on the screening, and another 22% had serious psychological distress. That means that of the people in the study who were being treated for depression roughly 48% neither suffered depression nor did they suffer serious psychological distress, indicating inaccurate diagnoses by the treating professionals.

There were some interesting correlates of depression. About eighteen percent of those in the lowest income group suffered depression, while only 3.7% of those in the highest income group suffered depression. It pays to be rich!

Depression was more common in those who were separated, divorced, widowed, or who had less than a high school education. None of this is terribly surprising.

How did depression sort out by age?

In the 18 to 34-year-old group 6.6% suffered depression. In the 35 to 49-year-old group 8.8% suffered depression. Ten percent of the 50 to 64-year-old group suffered depression. Of those over 65, only 8.3% suffered depression. So at least in this sample the 50 to 64-year-old group was slightly more likely to suffer depression, and contrary to what many people think, the youngest adults were somewhat less likely to suffer depression.

Of those who were married only 6.3% suffered depression. Of those who were separated, divorced, or widowed, 13.3% suffered depression. Divorce is bad for mental health, with almost a doubling of rates of depression.

Most of the patients who were treated for depression were treated by general practitioners (73%), with roughly 24% receiving treatment by psychiatrists and 13% receiving treatment by other mental health specialists. (There was some overlap, that’s why the numbers add up to more than 100%.)  This may explain the rather poor diagnosis and treatment of depression because general practitioners although competent and intelligent, are very busy and typically only have a few minutes to spend with each patient, not enough to do a good job diagnosing and treating depression.

CONCLUSIONS ABOUT DEPRESSION FINDINGS

What can we conclude from this research?

  1. Almost 10% of the adult population suffers from depression. Of those people who have depression less than 30% of them will get any treatment for depression.
  1. You are more likely to suffer depression if you are in the lowest income group, divorced, separated or widowed, or have no high school education. If you are married you have half the probability of being depressed.
  1. Many adults receive depression treatment even though they don’t really meet the criteria for depression. In this study, almost half of the people receiving treatment for depression were neither depressed nor were they even particularly distressed.
  1. Rates of depression by age groups were relatively equal, with the youngest age group having the least depression and the middle-aged group (50 to 64) suffering somewhat more depression. Married people are suffer half as much depression as divorced, separated, or widowed people.
  1. Most people received depression treatment from their general practitioner or internal medicine doctor, with a smaller number receiving treatment from a psychiatrist, and even a smaller number receiving treatment from psychologists. This also meant that most people who receive depression treatment were treated using medication, and very few people received psychotherapy, even though most studies comparing medication to cognitive behavioral therapy for depression have shown that therapy performs at least as well as medication and probably better over the long term, with less relapse.

Reading between the lines of this study, it suggests that many people who feel depressed would benefit from receiving an accurate diagnosis from a clinical psychologist, and might very well also benefit from receiving cognitive behavioral therapy for depression rather than medication. Even if medication is indicated, a psychologist could recommend it to the patient’s general practitioner, and then monitor more closely the results.

The study also suggests that many people receive antidepressant medication who actually are not depressed, which needlessly exposes them to side effects and also fails to provide the correct treatment for what troubles them.

And finally, since only about 30% of those who suffer depression received any treatment for it, if you feel depressed, be sure to pursue treatment for depression. Get an accurate diagnosis and then get treatment, ideally with a psychologist or therapist who practices cognitive behavioral therapy. If you want more information about depression, I’ve written extensively about it with a complete list of depression articles.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

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