Major depressive disorder, otherwise known as depression, has in recent decades received greater attention, with professional studies, personal testimonies, and public discourse all on the rise. Of particular interest is this condition’s prevalence, and as such, many individuals have raised the question—how common is depression?
The answer to this question is not a simple one, but rather is based on such factors as comorbidity, your preferred source of information, and the ways the very idea of depression can be viewed.
How does one define depression? Is it a lack of vitality, a sense of sorrow that just won’t go away, a hard to define “emptiness”? What constitutes depression, and why has it become such a focal point within the world of mental health?
Many theorists, researchers, artists, and laypeople have approached the task of defining depression once and for all, when more often than not, they ended up contributing to the complex, multifaceted perception of this condition. Still, several defining characteristics have consistently been recognized and linked to depression, which together can be viewed as its core attributes.
When attempting to describe their depression, individuals often refer to sadness and mourning as similar emotional experiences that convey some of the pain they are going through. Indeed, these three adverse states can all weigh heavily on our sense of well-being, cause us a great deal of suffering, and hinder our daily functioning.
What separates depression from both sadness and mourning is the level of devastation it can cause, and its ability to seemingly appear without cause. Unlike sadness, which is a low-spirited, emotional pain that usually passes without causing any lasting disturbance, depression brings about a deep, unrelenting sense of anguish that can plague the individual experiencing it for an extended period of time. And unlike mourning, which is considered a normative reaction to a significant loss in one’s life, depression can sometimes seem aimless, materializing and frustrating us for no apparent reason.
So what is depression, if not exactly sadness or mourning? And what makes it such a major mental health concern to be studied throughout history? For starters, this condition is taken so seriously due to the potential danger it can cause. From the Ancient Greeks, to Freud, to 20th-Century scientists, depression has been understood to be about an unyielding low mood that may appear even without experiencing an external catastrophe that would invoke a sense of mourning. Its effects can be detrimental, leading those with depression to completely shut out the world, as they experience a paralyzing sense of despair, and a lack of hope that one day they will feel better. Due to these and other associated symptoms, individuals facing depression are more likely to take their own lives, making this condition a serious threat not only to their well-being, but to their survival.
Aiming to identify, classify, and accurately describe different mental health disorders, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has for over a century published its own guide to the world of mental health.
Titled the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), this guide is periodically updated to reflect changes in the APA’s approach to the disorders included in it. Among the various conditions and disorders recognized by the DSM’s fifth and current edition is major depressive disorder, commonly known as depression.
The DSM-V notes that 7% of the US population contends with major depressive disorder. Its prevalence varies between genders and age groups.
Females have been shown to experience depression one and a half-to-three times more than males. The female-to-male ratio remains stable across cultures, socioeconomic status, races, diet, and culture, making a case for the biological and hormonal sex differences being the deciding factor in the higher prevalence of depression among females.
Women are also likelier to develop internal symptoms of depression that have to do with thoughts and feelings. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to develop external symptoms of depression, as relating to their functioning in their social and particularly occupational circles.
Prior to puberty, girls and boys exhibit similar rates of depression, with females age 14-25 having the highest prevalence for this condition, after which its rates begin to decrease. After age 60, depression rates for both females and males again reach roughly the same rates.
US adults between the ages of 18–29 are three times likelier to face depression than adults that are 60 or older. While depression may appear at any age, its chances dramatically increase during puberty. In the US, depression rates peak during one’s 20s.
The DSM-V goes on to state that at present, age has not been found to determine the patient’s pattern of depression, regarding onset, remission, and response to treatment. That said, certain symptoms have been shown to be more prevalent among specific age groups: younger patients, for example, typically exhibit more hypersomnia (oversleeping) and hyperphagia (overeating), while older patients are more likely to exhibit motor disturbances due to their depression.