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March 19, 2001

Depression: a new world epidemic?

Alexandra Katsikis is an intern at the Carter Center

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by 2020, depression will become the world’s second “most burdensome” illness. But whether depression has reached epidemic proportions is subject to debate among mental health professionals.

The increasing public health debate of depression will be the focus of a public forum, “Has Depression Become a New Epidemic?” to be held April 19 at the Carter Center.

Speakers for the event will include Rosalynn Carter; Gregory Fricchione, director of the center’s Mental Health Program; J. Douglas Bremner, a psychiatrist-researcher and assistant professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine; William McDonald, director of the Fuqua Center for Late-Life Depression at Wesley Woods; and Marc Safran, medical epidemiologist and psychiatrist at the CDC.

Some striking statistics: According to WHO, the percentage of the total global burden of disease attributable to mental illnesses will increase from 11.5 percent to 15 percent by 2020. Approximately 7 percent of the population suffers from mood disorders each year, and depression is among the top 10 causes of worldwide disabilities, according to Fricchione.

The question is whether the incidence of depression has always been constant and only now are previously unreported cases being recognized (as more sophisticated surveys are available and more people seek treatment), or whether the number of cases is actually increasing. According to Fricchione, large numbers of major depression cases go unreported.

“Individuals in families torn apart by violence or tragedies and people who use drugs and alcohol are often depressed but are never actually diagnosed as having a major depressive disorder,” he said.

For example, people with drug addictions are reported as dying from a recreational overdose rather than suicide due to major depression, which is sometimes the case. If depressive disorders go untreated, major depression may recur and, over time, dysthymia (a serious, chronic depression) can occur.

“Of all deaths by suicide, 20–35 percent of those victims suffered from a major depressive disorder,” Fricchione said. “Approximately 10–15 percent of patients hospitalized with depression go on to commit suicide. Every year, 500,000 emergency room visits are due to suicide attempts, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death among young adults and adolescents.”

Fricchione added that incidences of depression among particular age groups are increasing. “Women between the ages of 18 and 45 comprise the majority of those with major depression,” he said.
The elderly, who soon will become the largest age group in the United States as baby boomers enter their golden years, are also a prominent group with a high incidence of depression.

“People 65 and older have the highest suicide rate, which is directly linked to depression,” Fricchione said.

Fricchione believes that if the stigma associated with mental illness is abolished, more people will seek treatment.

“Celebrities and other well-known people who have emotional problems can help reduce stigma by acknowledging their suffering from depression and/or mental health problems,” he said. “The relentlessly negative images employed by the media used to depict persons suffering from a mental illness are a constant battle for those struggling with mental illnesses and their families. Projecting a more balanced view will help reduce stigma and discrimination.

“The government and third-party payers of health insurance need to recognize that mental illnesses deserve to be covered on the same level as other illnesses,” Fricchione said. “These steps will help change public perceptions of mental health. As the surgeon general has said, mental health is an essential part of general health.”

The event will be held April 19 from 7–8:30 p.m. at the Carter Center. General admission is $6; students are admitted free with ID. Reservations are required. For more information, call 404-420-3804.


Back to Emory Report March 19, 2001