January 1st, 2013

Depression stigma declining

A new survey points to a positive trend in how Americans see mental illness. In a public opinion poll conducted in September by Screening for Mental Health, Inc. (SMH), a non-profit provider of mental health screening programs, researchers found that most Americans are familiar with the diagnosis of depression and do not necessarily attach a stigma to it.

The national telephone survey of more than 1,000 adults was initiated by SMH to help the organization in their efforts to increase public awareness and understanding of depression.

“The important point of the survey,” says Douglas G. Jacobs, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and founder of SMH, “is to assess our progress regarding the stigma of depression, what people know about the illness, and if they are willing to seek treatment.”

The survey found that more than half (53 percent) of Americans know someone who has been treated for depression and nearly three-fourths (72 percent) would seek treatment themselves if they recognized signs of depression. Two-thirds believe the illness is treatable.

“What we’ve seen is that stigma has been reduced, although we are still not able to say we’ve ‘cured’ the problem of depression, which is one of the most common diagnoses of man and can cause extreme suffering,” Jacobs says.

The poll reflects the gradual acceptance that the SMH has seen over the past two decades with its National Depression Screening Day. Held in early October, the event is hosted by organizations across the country that provide free  mental health screenings. In 1991, when it was first organized, the SMH found that only one-third of people suffering from depression received treatment. Today, close to 50 percent are treated each year.

“However, that means that out of 12 to 14 million Americans who suffer each year, close to six or seven million are not getting the treatment that they need,” says Jacobs.

One of the more interesting findings, in light of the recent presidential elections, was that two-thirds of the respondents said they would not change their vote if they learned that a presidential candidate had sought treatment for depression. This finding was the same  for both sides of the political ticket. In 1972, vice-presidential nominee, Thomas Eagleton, was dropped from the Democratic ticket with George McGovern when reports of his mental health treatment surfaced. Democratic leaders felt that discussion about his fitness for office would draw attention away from the presidential candidate.

“That was one of the primary issues of the presidential election that year,” says Jacobs.

While it was not an issue in the 2012 election, the survey hoped to look at the question of public opinion around depression as it relates to people in a position of power.

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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