Home » Depression » Major Depressive Episodes Far More Common Than Once Thought
Major Depressive Episodes Far More Common Than Once Thought

Major Depressive Episodes Far More Common Than Once Thought

A new study finds that the number of adults in the United States who suffer from major depressive episodes at some point in their lives is far higher than previously believed.

According to researchers at the Yale School of Public Health, national survey data shows that approximately 17 percent of women and 10 percent of men report having a history of major depressive episodes (MDEs) in their lifetimes.

But researchers warn that these data are subject to “recall error,” or the tendency of people to forget or misreport their health histories when taking a survey.

Researchers led by Jamie Tam, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Yale’s Department of Health Policy and Management, created a simulation model to generate corrected estimates of lifetime depression. They found that the proportion of U.S. adults who have had MDEs is actually closer to 30 percent of women and 17 percent of men after factoring in recall error.

“Major depressive episodes are far more common than we thought,” said Tam. “Our model shows that the probability of someone having a first major depressive episode is especially high during adolescence. We also know from other research that having a first major depressive episode increases the likelihood you’ll have a second one. This means that anything we can do to prevent or treat episodes among young people could lead to larger health benefits over the course of their life.”

A major depressive episode is defined as a period of two weeks or longer in which a person experiences feelings of intense sadness and hopelessness, fatigue, weight gain or weight loss, changes in sleeping habits, loss of interest in activities, and thoughts of suicide or attempts at suicide.

These persistent symptoms cannot be easily changed, even if they are contradictory to a person’s circumstances, the researchers noted. Depressive episodes typically recur periodically in people diagnosed with major depression, they added.

The study shows that mental health programs that screen for, prevent, and treat depression could benefit a much larger segment of the population than previously thought, Tam said.

“If you think about chronic health conditions like heart disease, we do a lot to identify people who might be at risk for additional health events like heart attacks because that group would benefit from maintenance treatment and clinical monitoring,” Tam said.

“We don’t do such a great job when it comes to mental health conditions. So, if we’re able to assess how many people actually have histories of depression, that also tells us that more people are at risk of experiencing more depressive episodes.”

The researchers also found that older adults are especially likely to under-report their history of having depressive symptoms.

Among adults 65 years and older, underreporting for depression was as high as 70 percent, they report. Older adults often experience what is referred to as “minor depression,” where they still report significant depressive symptoms but don’t always meet clinical requirements for major depression.

According to Tam, there may be a tendency for older adults to downplay negative experiences of depression from when they were younger, classifying them as “growing pains” rather than major depression.

“Unfortunately, many people with depression or with histories of depression don’t access, or don’t have access to, treatment or support,” Tam said. “There’s a broader problem in our society of mental health not receiving the same attention and investment of resources compared to physical health conditions.”

Tam wrote the paper with colleagues from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

The study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Source: Yale University

Major Depressive Episodes Far More Common Than Once Thought

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). Major Depressive Episodes Far More Common Than Once Thought. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Aug 2020 (Originally: 9 Aug 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 9 Aug 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.