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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Depression Statistics

Q. I have been looking for facts and figures on the mortality rate of depression sufferers. Could you tell me where I could find these. I am doing research on this illness because many members of my family have suffered from depression, including myself. We are fortunate to be in a family that recognizes it as an illness and not a personality fault and therefore we get help early and effectively. What happens to those who do not, and how many of them are dying each year?

A. You are raising a very important public health issue. Depression takes a terrible toll not only on life, but on economic and health-related activities--not to mention the emotional toll on families who suffer with depression. Each year in the U.S., there are at least 30,000 suicides, and over 90% of these individuals have diagnosable psychiatric illnesses; the most common diagnoses are unipolar or bipolar major depression, seen in about 50% of cases (Simpson & Jamison, Primary Psychiatry, May 1997).

Historically, up to 15% of patients with major depressive disorder severe enough to require hospitalization have eventually died by suicide (Coryell et al, 1982), and I do not believe these rates have changed very much in recent years, despite important advances in treatment. Furthermore, patients with major depressive disorder have more physical problems than do other patients seen in primary care settings (Coulehan et al, 1990). One report found that patients with major depressive disorder (MDD) admitted to nursing homes had a 59% greater likelihood of death in the first year following admission, compared to those without MDD (Rovner et al, 1991). [Primary sources for these articles may be found in the publication, Depression in Primary Care, U.S. Dept of Health & Human Services, AHCPR publication No. 93-0550].

As your question implies, depression is often under-recognized and under-treated, especially in some primary care settings [see AHCPR publication No. 93-0550]. For more information on this issue, I would suggest contacting the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association at www.ndmda.org (or 800-826-3632). There is also a new organization with a strong emphasis on aiding families that you may be interested in: Families for Depression Awareness (www.familyaware.org). The take-home message: depression is a highly treatable illness, if it is properly diagnosed and treated. I wish you and your family well in pursuing this important issue.

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September 2001

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