Americans seem more miserable than ever, but they don’t have to be.
A new Gallup poll out Wednesday shows rates of depression have reached record highs, with nearly 1 in 3 U.S. adults reporting a depression diagnosis at least once in their lifetimes. Nearly 18 percent reported treatment.
“Both rates are the highest recorded by Gallup since it began measuring depression using the current form of data collection in 2015,” the pollster reported.
The findings came from a survey of 5,167 adults between Feb. 21-28 this year as part of Gallup’s National Health and Well-Being Index. The number of Americans who reported ever receiving a diagnosis of depression climbed nearly 10 percentage points compared to just eight years ago (from 19.6 percent to 29 percent). Why is that? Americans are being prescribed more psychiatric drugs than ever, with white women most likely to be on them. According to Gallup, women surveyed were five points more likely than men to report depression. Big Pharma’s lucrative medical solutions don’t appear to be solving anything.
A groundbreaking study published in Molecular Psychiatry journal last summer exposed antidepressants as having scarcely more effect than placebos. The findings led some psychologists to reject the long-held belief that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance.
Instead, it’s possible the problem lies in our circumstances, and in our approach to those circumstances. One study from researchers in Saudi Arabia published last year found antidepressants don’t even raise the quality of life over time.
“Most people on antidepressants don’t need them,” headlined a report from The Economist in October.
There is, however, a whole range of options available to depressed Americans, none of which involve gambling on Big Pharma to engineer a magic pill.
Gallup’s findings that depression is on the rise happen to coincide with a dramatic climb in internet use. About 1 in 3 U.S. adults report a “constant” presence online, according to the Pew Research Center. What does that even look like? If 30 percent of Americans spend all of their time watching other people live their lives on screen, it’s not very surprising that nearly 30 percent report lifetime depression. Just one hour of daily screen time is correlated with lower psychological well-being in minors aged 2-17.
Humans are “wired to be outside.” Study after study shows spending time outside benefits our spiritual and physical health. New research published by European scientists in March found that merely acknowledging the sun alone can lift our emotional state.
“We have, as Western populations, become very disconnected from the natural world,” Alex Smalley, the paper’s lead author, told the Washington Post. “When you see something vast and overwhelming or something that produces this feeling of awe, your own problems can feel diminished and so you don’t worry so much about them.”
But it’s not just screens and sunlight that can make or break our mental health. Living well requires eating well, and eating well means running away from deadly processed food.
A study of more than 10,000 adults published last year found participants who ate ultra-processed foods were more likely to report depressive symptoms. Another 2022 study from Brazil that surveyed nearly 11,000 adults found a correlation between an ultra-processed diet and lower cognitive function. On the other hand, a healthy diet combined with regular exercise is a winning combination.
At the same time, kindness is a virtue. At the end of last year, researchers at The Ohio State University found small and simple acts of kindness were the best out of three depression remedies they tested.
“Social connection is one of the ingredients of life most strongly associated with well-being. Performing acts of kindness seems to be one of the best ways to promote those connections,” said David Cregg, a co-author of the study.
Survey participants were divided into three groups, with each group assigned one of three different approaches to alleviate their symptoms: planning social activities, cognitive reappraisal, and acts of kindness. “Acts of kindness” was defined as “big or small acts that benefit others or make others happy, typically at some cost to you in terms of time or resources,” and was found most effective.
But beyond diet and self-awareness, Americans ought to have faith.
A 2014 study by a Columbia University psychologist found spirituality and religion can act as a psychic armor to protect individuals from depression by thickening the brain cortex. The same researcher found three years earlier that among adults who reported placing a high importance on religion or spirituality, 76 percent were less likely to suffer from a major depressive episode.