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Depression: Is There a Racial Gap?

Study Shows Overall Rates Similar Among Blacks and Whites, Contradicting Previous Research

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on May 03, 2004
From the WebMD Archives

May 3, 2004 (New York) -- When it comes to depression, things are not as black and white as many doctors think.

While many studies have suggested that whites are more likely to suffer from depression than other racial groups, new data from a large U.S. government survey suggest that's not exactly true. Rather, it all depends on your definition of depression, says Stephanie A. Riolo, MD, MPH, a lecturer at the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor.

What her survey of nearly 8,500 Americans did confirm is that whites are more likely than other racial groups to suffer major depression episodes that last at least two weeks, she tells WebMD.

But blacks and Mexican Americans are both more likely than whites to suffer milder long-term depression.

"Major depression is very severe, but it also may be short-lived," she explains. "Feeling a bit blue for a few years may not be as severe, but it can have just as many long-term effects that interfere with quality of life."

In either case, Riolo says, it is essential that a person suffering any symptoms of depression -- from irritability and isolation to mood swings and an inability to get out of bed -- seek help.

Maurizio Fava, MD, director of the Depression Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, calls the study "important."

The findings suggest that the overall rates of depression are the same among blacks and whites, he tells WebMD. "It's just the manifestation of symptoms that's different."

One in 10 Whites Suffers Major Depression

For the study, presented Monday at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, government researchers asked 8,449 Americans, aged 15 to 40, to fill out a structured questionnaire that asked about symptoms of depression.

Anyone who reported they ever had felt sad, blue, or depressed, or had lost all interest and pleasure in things they previously enjoyed, for at least two weeks in their life were classified as suffering from major depression.

People who said they had felt sad or depressed "most of the time, even if they were OK sometimes," for two or more years were classified as having minor chronic depression.

Among the findings:

  • Ten percent of whites suffered from major depression, compared with about 8% of blacks and Mexican Americans.
  • Recurrent spells of depression were also more common in whites, afflicting 18%, compared with about 13% of blacks and Mexican Americans.

  • In contrast, more than 7% of blacks and Mexican Americans suffered mild, chronic forms of depression, compared with only 6% of whites.

So how has this problem gone unnoticed for so long?

One of the biggest problems is that people with milder forms of depression never seek treatment as "they think it's just something they have to live with," Riolo says. "It's not."

WebMD Health News

Sources

SOURCES: American Psychiatric Association 157th Annual Meeting, New York, May 1-6, 2004. Stephanie A. Riolo, MD, MPH, lecturer, University of Michigan Health System, Ann Arbor. Maurizio Fava, MD, director, Depression Clinical and Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.

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