Less Than Half of Adolescents With Depression Got Help in 2021

3 min read

Oct. 9, 2023 – Approximately 1 in 5 youths in the U.S. had clinical depression during 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, yet fewer than half received care for the mental illness.

Youth who are Latino or who are multi-racial had the highest rates of depression, but they were the least likely to get treatment. The findings were published this week in JAMA Pediatrics and provide one of the broadest pictures of the already well-documented teen mental health crisis that flared during the pandemic. 

One of the goals of the study was to examine whether there are differences in the rate that major depressive disorder occurs among adolescents of different races or ethnicities, the authors wrote. They also looked at how likely adolescents were to get treatment for major depression. For the study, adolescents were defined as young people ages 12 to 17 years old. 

The researchers examined survey data from more than 10,000 U.S. adolescents who took the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. They found that multi-racial or multi-ethnic adolescents had the highest rates of major depressive disorder. Specifically, the analysis showed major depressive disorder occurred among:

  • About 27% of adolescents who reported being of more than one race or ethnicity said they had major depressive disorder.
  • Around 23% of Latino adolescents
  • About 20% of white adolescents.
  • About 15% of Black adolescents.
  • About 15% of Asian adolescents.

Meanwhile, just 29% of Latino adolescents and 21% of multi-racial adolescents reported getting treatment for their major depressive disorder, which was the lowest rate among any racial or ethnic group analyzed in the study. Latino youth were also the least likely to get care for major depressive disorder from a clinical-level care provider or from a mental health specialist, and they were the least likely of any group to be prescribed medication.

Major depressive disorder (MDD) is often also referred to as clinical depression, or just depression. Symptoms can vary but typically include feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in activities that were once enjoyed. Some people experience sleep problems, appetite changes, fatigue, and other physical changes. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must last at least two weeks, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

“The high rates of MDD may in part be attributed to the emotional turmoil and trauma from the pandemic that affected adolescents overall but members of racial and ethnic minority groups in particular due to the disproportionate share of COVID-19–related” illnesses and deaths, the authors wrote. 

They also suggested that the high rate of depression may have been impacted by low use of mental health services and barriers to treatment such as poor access to mental healthcare among people who have public insurance like Medicaid. Only about 40% of psychiatrists accept Medicaid, the researchers noted.

“These findings suggest that U.S. federal policy should target adolescents as a whole, and racial and ethnic minority populations in particular, to ensure timely and equitable access to high-quality mental health treatment,” the authors wrote.