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USM Mental Health Experts Not Surprised by Rising Numbers in Depression Poll

Mon, 06/05/2023 - 10:02am | By: Van Arnold

Stress at work; pressure at school; turmoil at home; grief; loneliness. These are simply a few of the factors that can lead to bouts of depression. In fact, a Gallup poll published last month found that levels of lifetime and current depression have reached an all-time high for Americans in 2023.

The rate of U.S. residents who report that they were depressed at some point in their lives hit 29% this year, according to the new poll. The reported level of those currently depressed reached 18%. Both figures mark an all-time high in Gallup's polling data.

These alarming figures come as no surprise to Dr. Michael Madson, Professor and Undergraduate Program Coordinator in the School of Psychology at The University of Southern Mississippi (USM).

“These numbers are not surprising, especially in relation to the post-pandemic effect,” said Madson. “We found in our research with a national sample of college students that the feelings of depressed mood persisted when we surveyed students for two semesters after the onset of the (COVID-19) pandemic even as campuses were reopening, and students returned to campus.”

Madson notes the importance of differentiating between people who report feeling sad/depressed versus those who meet the criteria to be diagnosed with depression.

“Base rates of diagnosed depression tend to be lower than these numbers, but it is not surprising that there continues to be an increase in the number of people who report feeling depressed,” he said.

The trend of depression levels tracked by Gallup shows a clear spike since the pandemic’s origin in spring 2020. The lifetime depression rate in 2019 was 21.6%, which jumped to 28.6% by 2021. Levels of current depression steadily rose from 12.5% in 2019 to the current rate of 17.8%.

Heidi Nelson, Director of Student Counseling Services (SCS) at USM, points out that the University cannot track or provide definitive numbers regarding students who have experienced depression. “But we have seen an increase in the number of students experiencing mental health crises and safety concerns, and students reaching out for overall mental health supported related to depression and anxiety symptoms,” said Nelson.

The Gallup poll revealed that women have a significantly higher level of lifetime depression at 36.7% as compared to men at 20.4%. The highest rate of current depression in an age group is 24.6% for adults aged 18 to 29. This marked a sharp increase from only 13% in 2017.

Barbara Cheatle, Mental Wellness Counselor, Student Counseling Services at USM, cites several major contributing factors to the rise in depression levels reported by students.

“These would include changes/loss of support systems from the pandemic; increased social isolation; social media; transitions in living and work arrangements related to the pandemic; reduced stigma around mental health related to advocacy and campaigns to promote discussion of mental health,” said Cheatle.

Added Cheatle: “There is also the possibility of a higher reporting rate related to younger generations growing up with more access and resources for mental health, and outlets to express their mental health experiences.”

As far as coping mechanisms to help anyone suffering sadness or feelings of depression, Madson offers some fundamental advice.

“One great way to cope with feeling depressed is to seek professional help from a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, who can help people better understand what they are experiencing while learning about tools to manage their experience,” he said.

Madson explains that for some people medication is needed and effective medications are available to treat depression. Another viable option is psychiatric help.

“Beyond professional help, people can talk with family and friends about their experience as well as how these people may help,” said Madson. “It seems simplistic, but we know that for many people, working to re-engage in activities they find pleasurable can help to combat feeling depressed.”

Shelby Reeves, Mental Wellness Counselor, Student Health Services at USM, stresses that students who might be experiencing symptoms of depressions are encouraged to walk-in or call SCS for assessment and connection with support and resources on campus and in the community.”

“For faculty and staff, we encourage them to reach out to EAP for mental health support,” said Reeves. “In addition, anyone can reach out for mental health support by texting or calling 988 to access the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.”