Major depression has “surged” in the United States, especially among younger Americans, according to a report based on medical and survey information from 41 million people covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield plans around the country.
The report said online activities such as social media, video games and texting, and the isolation that can result, might be contributing.
It found diagnoses of major depression increased by 33 percent between 2013 and 2016, with a 63 percent increase among adolescents, defined as ages 12 to 17, and a 47 percent increase among millennials, defined as ages 18 to 34.
Overall, 4.4 percent of Blue Cross Blue Shield members have a diagnosis of major depression, which is characterized by symptoms including intense feelings of sadness or hopelessness or loss of interest in normal pleasures which last two weeks or more, and which interfere with the ability to function normally. People who think about suicide or commit suicide typically are suffering from major depression.
Rates of major depression varied significantly by state, ranging from 6.4 percent in Rhode Island to 2.1 percent in Hawaii, and by city, ranging from 6.8 percent in Topeka, Kansas to 1.5 percent in Laredo, Texas.
The report found a major depression rate of 4.4 percent in Pennsylvania. That breaks down to 5.8 percent of women, 2.8 percent of men, 2.7 percent of adolescents, and 4.5 percent of millennials.
It offered no definitive reason for the surge, although it said things like social media and texting could be a contributor.
The report quotes Dr. Karyn Horowitz, a psychiatrist in Rhode Island, as saying “It is possible the increased rates of depression in adolescents are related to a combination of increased electronics use and sleep disruptions in already vulnerable individuals. Increased use of electronics, video games more commonly in boys and social media/texting more commonly in girls, can lead to increased conflict both within the home and with peers.”
Dr. Erika Saunders, chair of psychiatry at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, agreed with the report’s call for study of the possible connection between online activity and depression.
“It adds a whole other layer of complexity to the social relationships adolescents need to navigate,” Saunders said, referring to social media.
She advised parents to closely monitor the online activity of children, especially as it pertains to their level of isolation and their emotional health.
Regarding the “surge” in major depression cited in the report, Saunders said it’s unclear whether more people actually have major depression, or whether it’s a matter of more people being diagnosed. It has become more common for family doctors to screen people for depression, possibly accounting for at at least some of the rise, she explained.
Depression has both organic and environment causes, and can result from a combination of the two, Saunders said. Some people are born with genetic traits that make them more vulnerable to depression in response to negative situations and trauma, while some are born with traits that make them especially resilient. Brain chemistry plays a role in depression, effecting various parts of the brain and thought processes. Because of the brain changes that accompany depression, someone can lose the ability to “think their way out” of the situation, she said.
According to the report, an increase in younger people with depression has major financial ramifications. It’s because people with depression are significantly less healthy then the average person and often have multiple chronic medical conditions, resulting in higher health care expenditures.
The report found that woman are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with major depression, with six percent of women having been diagnosed, and three percent of men.
Saunders said people with depression can often be treated by their family doctor, who might prescribe medication. Sometimes treatment involves medication and counseling by an outside mental health professional, she said.
A family doctor should be the first contact for someone feeling like they might have depression, according to Saunders. Schools often have programs that can help someone who might be depressed, she said.
Saunders further said someone who feels they might be suffering from major depression, or who had thought of suicides, can receive help by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The call will result in referrals to places in the person’s community that provide mental health care and related help.
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