Depression: No Big Problem? Right? Wrong!

Here is some more good stuff from Peter Cramer’s book Against Depression, which is his follow-up to Listening to Prozac, his groundbreaking book about depression and Prozac. This is a fascinating book, as good as Listening to Prozac. If you have any interest at all in learning more about depression, I would strongly recommend this book, which is a philosophical and scientific exploration of depression. Much of what follows is inspired by this book.

How big a problem is depression compared to other illnesses? Other health problems such as AIDS, arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer are much bigger problems, right?

Wrong. If you look at the impact of depression on disability, very interesting facts emerge. Let me explain how these figures are calculated. Imagine a 20 year old woman develops chronic depression that causes her to be 1/3 disabled for the next 60 years. That means she loses the equivalent of 20 years of life, which is the same as if a healthy woman died at age 60 instead of the normal lifespan of 80.

When disability from depression is calculated this way, the figures are astounding. The World Health Organization looked at this data from around the world. They found that by the year 2020 depression will be the largest cause of disability with the sole exception of heart disease. Even in 1990, depression was already the number one cause of disability within the major chronic diseases of midlife. Major depression accounted for almost 20 percent of disability-adjusted life years lost for women in the developed countries. This was more than three times the amount caused by the next illness.

Other studies looked at the impact of depression in the workplace. In the United States this cost is estimated at over 40 billion dollars, which is almost 3% of the total economy. Being depressed on the job is estimated as the equivalent of calling in sick half a day per week.

Just how common is depression? There are many studies and they often disagree, but the best studies suggest that about 16 percent of Americans will suffer a major depression over their lifetime. That is almost 1 in 6 Americans. Look around at your friends and family and co-workers, 1 in 6 of them will suffer a major depression. In any given year, between 6-7 percent suffer major depression.

And depression has major health implications. Studies that look at elderly people find that depression increases the risk of death very significantly, independent of suicide. One study found that elderly people who were depressed were 40 percent more likely to die than those who were undepressed. When they analyzed the data to see what the cause was, they found that even when you controlled for all other health behaviors and other factors, depression still accounted for 24 percent increase in deaths. This was the equivalent of high blood pressure, smoking, stroke, or congestive heart failure.

So depression is no big deal? Not unless you consider major disability, huge workplace effects, and shortened life a big deal. In reality, depression is one of the most devastating diseases that human beings suffer.

Copyright 2006 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions


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 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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