Depression and Anxiety are on the Rise?

This is said so many times in conversation today it is almost a fact.  But is it?    For as many journal articles that you read to say that it is, there are as many to say that it isn’t.  There are quite a few reasons for this.

The Data is Unreliable.

This is because prior to 1990’s mental health issues were not talked about, especially by our parents and grand-parents.  There was an over-riding sense that you don’t share your dirty laundry.  People were more private and less educated concerning mental health issues.

Therefore questions that may have been asked about depression and anxiety were not understood as they are today.  Also, people lied out of shame and privacy.  A 70 year old man spoke about this recently.  He suffered debilitating depression after the death of his wife.  He never told anyone because he thought 1:  it’s normal 2:  he didn’t want to cause more stress to his family 3: he had no one to talk to.

Today mental health has made some leaps forward in smashing stigmas but we still have a way to go.   People today are much more comfortable about seeing a mental health professional than they were 50 years ago.

Has Depression increased or is it just more common?  

More people are being diagnosed with depression each year.   Does that mean that depression has increased or that more people are coming forward?  A possible reason for the increase in the depression rate might actually be a good thing – a greater awareness of mental health issues (source).

The exact number varies from study to study, so it’s unclear by how much the rate of depression has increased. But that depression has become more common? That seems certain (source).

People Forget

A 50 year old will be less likely to report having experienced any symptoms of depression or anxiety. Those two months of lethargy and loss of appetite he experienced after his first girlfriend left him for an older man have been forgotten. That was 41 years ago!  (Source).

young guy

In one study kids were interviewed at ages 15, 16, 18, and 21 and asked about their mental health. Then at age 25 they were asked,

Looking back over your whole life before you were 21, did you ever have a period of at least two weeks when you (a) felt sad, blue or depressed nearly every day? (b) lost interest in most things like work, hobbies or things you usually enjoy?

56% of those who had said yes at 16 or 18 said NO at 21.  

Within just five to ten years, the majority of kids had forgotten about or become too ashamed to admit to their prior experience with depression. Now imagine the same experiment being done again, but from age 15 to 50. What percent of those 50 year olds would remember? (Source)

It is obvious that our social and community  life is radically different than 50 years ago.  We’re spending less time with other people, eating worse food, and getting less exercise, sunlight, and sleep.  We are less connected with nature and each other.  All of these things are proven to cause depression and anxiety.  We  need a village to raise a child and  we need a village to keep us healthy.

So it would seem that our new ways of living are promoting an increase in mental health diagnosis.  Yet is it worse now than in the early 1900’s.  What about the soldiers who were sent home to decimated families in WW1 and WW2 with undiagnosed post traumatic stress syndromes?  My mother and her family grew up in Melbourne through the great depression and all of my aunts and uncles suffer from anxiety.  I don’t blame them.

Although they tell funny and romantic stories of life in those days there was a darker side.  My mother is still upset that she had to leave school at 14 to get a job so that she could bring an income into the family.  When she married they rented ‘one room’ above a delicatessen.  The kitchen downstairs had to be shared with another family and the toilet was outside near the laneway.  She left a home where she had lived with four other siblings in a one bedroom home where the verandah was turned into a makeshift bedroom for the boys and baths were once a week and they shared the water.  One room for two people must have been the Ritz.

Life was unpredictable and the future uncertain.   Where was the next meal coming from?  Clothes were handed down and everything was shared even the weekly bath and the potty.  My aunt still laments the fact that she had to wear ‘awful hand me down clothes with the elastic broken in hand made underwear’.

They weren’t bombarded with global news, or social media but they had lost uncles and fathers to the war.  My father was abandoned on a race track at the age of 2 1/2 during the great depression by a mother who had died from medical malpractice  and a father who, without work, was unable to support a family of three small children.

Did they suffer from depression and anxiety, I am sure that they did.  Did they know what it was?  Probably not.  Even so they had to just get on.  Could they afford to go to a doctor even if they thought to?  No.


In his encyclopedic account of the subtypes, causes, and treatments of melancholy, from the 17th century, Richard Burton notes its ubiquity (Source):

Being then a disease so grievous, so common, I know not wherein to do a more general service, and to spend my time better, than to prescribe means how to prevent and cure so universal a malady, an epidemical disease, that so often, so much crucifies the body and minds (Burton, 1845)

My great grandmother Jane was hospitalised in a mental institution in Sunbury for ‘melancholia’.  This bought great shame on the family.  To have a mentally insane member of the family locked up.  Today ‘melancholia’ is known as ‘depression’ and is treated very differently.

In those days the Mental Health facilities in Melbourne were horrific.  There was squalid overcrowding, lack of health professionals, primitive sanitation, lack of food and medication. ‘Fever tests’ were done on patients at Sunbury.  They were injected with Malaria to induce fever which was thought to reduce psychosis (source).

In 1931 at the Royal Womens Hospital, my  grandmother Mona had her uterus removed 6 weeks after giving birth to a baby girl.  They did this to stop her ‘histrionics’.  They thought that a hysterectomy stopped a womens hysterical responses.   She died from a perforated womb which developed into tetanus and septicaemia.    They did a coroners enquiry into her death so I have evidence from the coroner and the testimonies of the nurses and doctors.   I have since found out that she had epilepsy.  Something witch is easily treated today.  Certainly not by a hysterectomy.    They thought that her ‘fits’ were bouts of hysteria.  The coroner also noted that she was malnourished.

These personal examples show how far we have come in treating mental illness and other illnesses in general.  To find empirical data from 50 years ago about these issues is is very difficult.

Either way, we are more aware of mental health issues today.  They may or may not have been as prevalent 50 years ago.  One thing is certain, with the high rates of infant mortality and lack of medical expertise,  grief and death was more common.  As were general hardships.


Social Media

What about social media I hear everyone lamenting?  This is also a grey area.  The experts say that there is not enough data yet to make a scientific statement about whether or not social media causes depression or anxiety.

At the moment, we don’t know enough about how the way that social media is used and its impact on mood and longer-term mental health (source).  

Does social media cause depression or does depression drive you toward social media?

On thing we do know is that people are more lonely today.  Social anxiety is also more prevalent today.  There is good and bad in social media.  Like our prolific choices in food and the rise in obesity.  It’s about quantity.  How much are we on social media?    It has been proven that you can become addicted to social media.  To the addict, it gives the same hit as cocaine.

Social anxiety and loneliness has increased without any influence from social media.  This is because of the way that we live today.  We are isolated from community and the daily interactions in a village environment.  So the question remains,  does social media cause depression or does loneliness, depression and social anxiety drive you toward social media?

“Although connectedness has fallen significantly over the past 40-50 years, we still have the compelling evolutionary need to connect with other human beings. As John Cacioppo has pointed out “forming connections with pets, or online friends, or even with God, is a noble attempt by an obligatory gregarious creature to satisfy a compelling need,” and this continuing need in the face of creeping social isolation has coincided with the internet providing us with an “army of replacement confidants” – none of whom are confidants in the original meaning of the term”(source).

The use of social media has been proven to negatively effect physical health, work and  school work.  However, so can any addiction.   Rather than slamming social media, we should be looking at why it has become an addiction.  What are the causes behind it.  Are loneliness and isolation the things we should be addressing?  Should we be looking at how often we are using it.  Like anything, overuse and over dependence can become an addiction.


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Thanks for considering.

Love Lisa

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