Depression Rates Are Higher Than Ever—Experts Say These 5 Things Need to Change

Depression rates are higher than they’ve ever been, according to new data from Gallup.1

A recent Gallup poll reported that 29% of Americans have been diagnosed with depression at least once in their lifetime—this represents an increase of almost 10 percentage points when compared to 2015. This number is the highest recorded by Gallup.1

The mental illness appears to be impacting younger people and women at greater rates. Those aged 18 to 29 (34.3%) and 30 to 44 (34.9%) have significantly higher depression rates in their lifetime than those older than 44. And more than one-third of women (36.7%) report having depression at some point in their lifetime.1

“Isolation and loneliness are an epidemic that contributes to these rising rates of depression,” Elisabeth Gulotta, LMHC, licensed mental health counselor and the founder of NYC Therapeutic Wellness told Health. “People need people and connection, and we are living in a more isolated and disconnected world.”

Why Are People More Depressed Now?

While the pandemic certainly played a role in these rising numbers, mental health providers told Health that a number of other factors also played a role in the trend—like increasing loneliness and use of social media.23

Other contributing factors include genetics, biochemistry, environmental stressors, and personality differences, Mark Debus, MSW, LCSW, licensed clinical social worker and clinical manager of behavioral health at Sedgwick told Health.

A person’s vocation also can lead to spikes in depression. For instance, people who experience a higher rate of exposure to daily trauma or repetitive traumas from work—like first responders, law enforcement, medical staff, teachers, and social workers—face potentially greater effects on their mental health, Debus explained.

The first signs of depression usually occur in a patient’s mid-twenties, Laura Erickson-Schroth, MD, MA, a psychiatrist and chief medical officer for The Jed Foundation told Health. She noted that a mental health condition often goes undiagnosed for years after it begins due to stigma, lack of access to care, and other factors.

“For some people, depression can start in the teen years, and can make the transition into adulthood especially hard,” Dr. Erickson-Schroth added.

She emphasized how it would be a mistake to assume that rate of depression is higher solely due to a growing openness to discuss mental health. Doing so, she says, leads people to overlook important realities about why people are struggling, such as social isolation, essential needs that are unmet, and a lack of access to mental healthcare.

“[Overall], we are experiencing relational poverty,” Gulotta explained. “COVID and technology both have eroded connection in a way that creates isolation and separation. It has been said that the best predictor of one’s mental health is one’s relational health or connectedness. We are very much a disconnected society, even though other technologies or social media platforms would suggest otherwise.”

Health Disparities and Depression Rates

Healthcare disparities and barriers to access also increase depression risk, noted Ling Lam, PhD, MFT, a lecturer in Santa Clara University’s School of Education and Counseling Psychology. 

Consequently, these factors also could be contributing to the rise in depression rates.

“Youth of color are having an especially difficult time right now,” Dr. Erickson-Schroth said. “American Indian/Alaska Native youth have the highest rates of suicide of all racial or ethnic groups. The suicide rate for Black youth has more than doubled over the past decade.”

As a country, it’s crucial to pay attention to the systemic factors influencing these numbers, she added. One place to start is working to decrease racial discrimination and violence while increasing access to culturally competent care so that people feel safe to reach out when they need help.

How Can We Lower Depression Rates in the U.S.?

There are a number of things that can be done at the societal level to change this trend. For instance, experts recommend improving social connections and meeting essential needs.

“The most important tool we have at our disposal to decrease depression rates is to improve people’s lives,” explained Dr. Erickson-Schroth. “Connection to community, access to essential needs, and addressing sources of stress all help to decrease depression.”

Here is a closer look at some of the things experts note can be done to reduce rising depression rates in the United States.

Nurture Social Connection

Nurturing social connections is at the top of the list when it comes to reducing rising depression rates. Dr. Erickson-Schroth pointed to the Surgeon General’s recent warning about an “epidemic of loneliness” in the U.S.: Time spent in person with friends has decreased by 70% over the last two decades—particularly for those ages 15 to 24.4

“Humans are social creatures, and research shows that social isolation and loneliness are risk factors for poor mental and physical health—depression, anxiety, substance abuse, suicide, and earlier death from all-cause,” she added.

Interestingly, living in a city may help promote more social connections. One study found that on average, people have more contacts across a greater variety of functions when they live in larger cities. What’s more, these increased opportunities for socialization could be protective against depression.5

“Connection is the key to emotional well-being,” says Dr. Erickson-Schroth. “When…people feel connected to friends, family, or their [community], they are less likely to struggle with their mental health.”

Meet Essential Needs

In order to fight rising depression rates, Dr. Erickson-Schroth emphasized that the country needs to ensure that everyone has their essential needs met.

“Young people are facing record levels of stress,” she said. “Currently, nearly three in five college students face some sort of essential needs insecurity, including housing instability, food insecurity, or lack of access to affordable healthcare.”

Likewise, debt and financial stress have been linked to depression, while deaths by suicide increase during financial crises, she noted. “To make matters worse, one of the top reasons people don’t seek out mental health help is because of finances.”

Keep Dialogue Open

While the United States has come a long way in speaking more openly about depression and other mental health conditions, there still is work to be done in order for that stigma to go away.

Talking openly adds an extra layer of connectivity within the mental health space.

When people know how widespread depression is, they are less likely to feel alone. They also can learn that while depression is a serious illness, it can still be treated.

“I think that continuing to cultivate conversation around mental health—normalizing and de-stigmatizing it as well as making services more accessible—will continue to help,” encouraged Gulotta.

Foster Collaboration Among Healthcare Professionals

Because people diagnosed with depression often have multiple needs for medications and interventions, it is important that healthcare providers and mental health providers collaborate, Dr. Lam noted.

Not only could this potentially reduce rates of depression, but it also has been shown to improve patient health, enhance their quality of care, and lead to satisfaction.6

This approach involves the widespread implementation of a collaborative care model for the management of depressive disorders. Through the use of a model like this, routine screening and diagnosis of depressive disorders would improve and result in earlier treatment. In fact, research shows that outcomes for depression with a collaborative care model were better than primary care treatment only.7

Make Mental Healthcare More Accessible

For many people, access to mental healthcare is their biggest barrier to getting the treatment they need. Either people do not have health insurance coverage to pay for treatment or they cannot afford the fees involved. Additionally, some areas of the country are lacking mental health professionals and services in general, explained Debus.

“There also is still a gap in psycho-education, particularly for family members who do not know how to navigate mental health systems and get help and support for loved ones,” Gulotta pointed out.

Other factors that can limit access include lack of transportation or childcare, language barriers, logistical challenges, and stigma-related belief systems. Even long waiting times for treatment, beliefs about self‐sufficiency, and concerns about privacy can limit access.8

For this reason, experts believe that when mental healthcare in the U.S. becomes more readily available to those who need it, we are likely to see declining depression rates. But right now, the shortage of mental health professionals is making it more difficult for individuals to find and receive adequate care, clarified Debus.

Dr. Lam concluded, “On a societal level, we need to continue to increase mental health resources, reduce stigma related to mental health issues, provide more equitable access to care, [increase] education so people can address their mental health issues proactively, and address issues like racism, sexism, and economic disparity since chronic stress amplifies depression risk.”