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Rise in youth depression diagnoses may reflect change in attitudes

More young people are being diagnosed with depression, but that does not necessarily mean the illness is becoming more common.

Huppupäinen nuori mies, tiiliimuuri.
Ten percent of girls and five percent of boys were diagnosed with depression by age 25. Image: Tommaso Altamura / AOP

More youth are seeking and receiving treatment for depression through specialised healthcare services, according to a national study carried out at the University of Turku's Research Centre for Child Psychiatry.

"The rapid increase in children and adolescents diagnosed with depression poses a challenge for specialised mental health services," the researchers note in the Nordic Journal of Psychiatry.

The study compared young people born between 1994-2000 with those born in 1987-1993. The rate of depression diagnoses by the age of 15 soared by 65 percent among girls and by 53 percent among boys.

The report does not explain the increase, but suggests that "it might be due to improved access to services, which could reflect better identification and more positive attitudes to mental health problems".

The study's principle author, Svetlana Filatova, stresses that the results do not necessarily mean that young people are more depressed than before.

Patients getting help earlier

"The most likely explanation is that youth are more courageous about approaching mental health services. Increasingly, depressed individuals get help early on, which is a positive thing," says Filatova, a post-doctoral researcher at the centre.

The use of mental health services has steadily increased over the past two decades in Finland and elsewhere.

"The results indicate that people more readily recognise their own need for help, or that of others, and that societal attitudes toward depressed people have become more positive," Filatova says.

A co-author of the study, docent David Gyllenberg, points out that the growing use of children's and youth services is placing a burden on the specialised healthcare system.

"The growing number of patients should be addressed by developing suitable evidence-based forms of treatment," he says.

The study was based on data from various population registries as well as the Finnish Prenatal Study of Depression. It covers some 1.24 million children born in Finland between 1987 and 2007. Of these, more than 37,000 had at least one specialised healthcare visit for depression. Among those tracked up to age 25, 10 percent of girls and five percent of boys were diagnosed with depression.

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