November 6th, 2023
Mental health statistics indicate that there has been a general increase in mental ill health, both in the UK and around the world more. The charity Mind indicates that 1 in every 4 people experience mental health issues in England. The World Health Organisation estimates that around 5% of the population experience depression worldwide. That works out at around 280 million individuals suffering with depression globally.
Is the number of individuals suffering with depression on the rise? How do we know when we are dealing with depression, and what may be causing it for so many people? Most importantly, what are the best methods of managing depression to maintain our mental health?
Are We in a Mental Health Crisis?
The NHS estimates that there has been a 5.07% increase in the number of antidepressants prescribed in the year between 2021-2022 in comparison to 2020-2021. With 83.4 million prescriptions for antidepressants being given in the course of a year, there is a clear upward trend in the number of people being treated for depression.
These mental health statistics show a stark truth: the number of people struggling with depression is increasing. We also only know the numbers reflected in the statistics – often, statistics do not reflect a full population for a range of reasons. For example, some individuals may have not yet accessed formal support or have not self-reported experiencing symptoms of depression due to embarrassment or nervousness.
Statisticians often suggest that realistic numbers in these kinds of contexts are often higher due to these ‘shadow’ populations. Sadly, this could suggest that the extent of depression is even greater than these numbers indicate.
But what is behind the rising depression rates? Before we can think about the reasons behind increasing depression rates, it is important to first consider what depression actually is. How does it manifest? What signs should you look for, and what is the difference between having a difficult time and experiencing a bout of clinical depression?
What is Depression?
Depression is a psychiatric condition under the umbrella of mood disorder. This largely means that depression’s effects are felt on the mood first and foremost. But depression is more than just ‘feeling sad.’ It is a complex diagnosis with a broad range of experiences that make up its symptomology.
Depression symptoms can broadly be separated into three groups: psychological, physical, and behavioural.
Psychological symptoms focus on the way things feel. Physical symptoms consider depression’s impact on the body, whilst behavioural symptoms describe how you may act during a period of depression.
- Anhedonia (loss of ability to feel pleasure, even in things that typically make you feel good)
- Feeling upset consistently, often feeling on the edge of tears
- Feelings of emotional numbness, as though you are empty or detached from yourself
- Feelings of low self-worth and confidence
- Feeling guilty frequently
- Quick to anger or irritation
- Cognitive distortions – negative biases in thought processes such as ‘black and white thinking’ and catastrophising
- Feelings of intense tiredness or lethargy
- Feeling very low in energy
- Experiencing aches or pains that you cannot link to other illnesses or activity
- Irregular sleep patterns and disrupted rest
- Low interest in sex
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Alogia (speaking less)
- Affective flattening (appearing ‘flat’ or emotionally ‘blunted’)
- Reduced social contact
- Struggling at work or school
- Conflict or difficulties in relationships with friends, family or partner
- Reduced attention to hygiene and self-care
- Reduced attention to maintaining your living environment
There are a number of kinds of depression; these types of depression can be delineated as they have slightly different presentations. Other types of depression include:
- Bipolar disorder
- Postnatal depression
- Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD)
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
What Causes Depression?
Due to the complex nature of depression, it is not possible to give one single theory to explain why individuals experience the mood disorder. However, it is helpful to consider some potential contributing factors.
Factors contributing to depression:
- The pandemic effect
- Social media and technology
- Economic concerns
- Societal and cultural factors
Causes of Depression: COVID-19 and the Pandemic Effect
Research published by the Office of National Statistics indicates that depression rates increased during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic (from one in five in the early 2021 to one in six in the summer of the same year).
74% of these people stated that their depression was caused or exacerbated by the pandemic.
The research found that specific groups were more likely to experience depression during the COVID-19 lockdowns, suggesting that the following demographics were particularly impacted by the pandemic effect:
- Disabled individuals
- Clinically vulnerable individuals
- Individuals in precarious financial situations
- Unemployed adults
- Individuals living in more deprived areas of the country
We can see that the pandemic worked as an accelerating factor; that is, it highlighted – and in some cases, deepened – situations that were already difficult for many. It indicated health, housing, work and socioeconomic status issues that can lead to low mood and, subsequently, clinical depression.
Whilst reports indicate that depression rates have decreased following the height of the pandemic ,they are still significantly higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Causes of Depression: Social Media and Technology
Social media was created to facilitate connection. But the more research that is conducted, the more we can see that burgeoning technologies also play a part in our well-being in a negative sense.
One study found that ‘the risk of depression is increased by 13% […] for each hour increase in social media use in adolescents.’ Using this statistic, with the average UK screen time being five hours, this could ultimately mean that the typical daily use of social media could increase the risk of depression by 65%.
This social media exposure is not always positive. With an increasing percentage of individuals citing social media as their main news source, social media has become linked with the consumption of negative content in recent years. This has led to the neologism of ‘doomscrolling’, a term that is ‘commonly defined as a habit of scrolling through social media and news feeds where users obsessively seek for depressing and negative information.’
This type of social media use has been linked to increased levels of both depression and anxiety. However, researchers indicate that individuals with higher stress levels are more likely to engage in doomscrolling, suggesting that the negative consumption of online content can quickly turn into a vicious cycle.
Causes of Depression: Economic Concerns
Cultural commentators have been discussing the ‘cost of living crisis’ since the end of 2021. The cost of living crisis is a term used to describe the ‘fall in ‘real’ disposable incomes over the past couple of years.
It particularly focuses on the increase in the cost of essential expenses such as energy, food and housing and how average earnings have not been able to match this fluctuation. Many economists link this to the current rise in inflation, which explains how the same amount of money in 2023 does not stretch as far as it did in early 2021.
Financial stresses always carry great concern and are frequently linked to high levels of stress and poor mental health. Reports from the Office of National Statistics show increased levels of depression in individuals with particular financial concerns, including:
- Those struggling to pay their energy bills (among whom 24% experienced depression in comparison to 9% who could pay their bills without worry)
- Those on long-term sickness (among whom 59% experienced depression)
- Those with caring responsibilities (among whom 37% experienced depression)
- Those with disabilities (among whom 35% experienced depression)
With an increase in the reliance of food banks, food poverty is becoming a serious issue as independent food banks are struggling to meet the demand on their services.
These practical concerns about ensuring there is enough food for the family whilst bills are also paid are linked with great stress and anxiety and can subsequently lead to the development of depression.
Causes of Depression: Social & Cultural Factors
Depression is an experience that great thinkers have been discussing for centuries. Writers and artists in every era in every country around the world have attempted to represent what it feels like to experience such a depth of sadness.
This, unfortunately, is perhaps a sign that the deep feelings that can characterise depression can be something of a universal human experience. We have all felt deep pain for various reasons; in depression, this pain is extended, encompassing more for longer.
Social and cultural phenomena can lead to depression. We can experience things in our lives which affect us deeply for a very long time. Two of the most common of these experiences are trauma and grief.
Around a third of adults in England have experienced some kind of traumatic event. This could take the form of witnessing an accident on the road, experiencing a life-changing or threatening illness, or experiencing abuse. Trauma has been linked to depression, particularly in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Theorists have looked into the effects of trauma and have hypothesised that experiencing trauma can change the way your brain functions, leading to long-term suffering from depression and anxiety. Some suggest that the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has acted as a ‘collective trauma’ due to the upheaval and emotional stress the unprecedented situation caused for many.
For others, the pandemic led to the experience of trauma on a personal scale or, through the isolation of social distancing, meant that old traumas resurfaced.
We all experience grief at some point of our lives. Bereavement is never a positive experience, but there are some situations where losing someone can hit especially hard. This is often the case in sudden or traumatic situations such as in accidents, or due to difficult illnesses, either terminal or unexpected.
We all experience grief differently, and psychologists explain that grieving is a natural process. However, sometimes, breaking away from that grief can be hard, and it can begin to follow us through our lives. When this occurs and grief threads itself into the fabric of our life, it can become a long-term presence – and, therefore, a potential risk of depression.
Depression Treatment Options
There is more to depression than simply feeling sad. Depression is a clinical diagnosis that can be managed with appropriate treatment. You do not need to face depression alone.
It is usually recommended that you should see a medical professional if you have been experiencing symptoms of depression daily for over two weeks.
Treatment for depression typically falls into three categories; pharmacological approaches (medications), psychotherapies (talking therapies such as counselling and CBT), and holistic activities.
At UKAT, we offer a range of support for individuals struggling with depression at our CQC approved London centre. There are a range of therapeutic services we can offer to individuals experiencing treatment-resistant depression, including:
- Group therapy
Get Support for Depression
Feeling sad is a universal experience, but depression is a different beast. If depression is changing how you live your life, you may benefit from professional support. You can receive non-judgmental, confidential advice on dealing with depression with UKAT services by contacting our team today.
You can also make a referral to access formal support at our London clinic.