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Just Over Half of Americans Diagnosed with Major Depression Receive Care

More Receive Psychotherapy than Medication; Study Provides New Detail on Disparities

Science Update

man and woman on ground

Overall, only about half of Americans diagnosed with major depression in a given year receive treatment for it, and even fewer—about one fifth—receive treatment consistent with current practice guidelines, according to data from nationally representative surveys supported by NIMH. Among the ethnic/racial groups surveyed, African Americans and Mexican Americans had the lowest rates of use of depression care; all groups reported higher use of past-year psychotherapy vs. medication for depression.


Depression is a leading cause of disability in the United States. Past research has found that many people with depression never received treatment, and that the percentage of those receiving treatment varies with ethnicity and race. In order to provide comprehensive and up-to-date information on depression care, with a particular emphasis on minority groups, NIMH's Collaborative Psychiatric Epidemiology Surveys initiative (CPES) has combined data from three nationally representative studies: the National Survey of American Life, the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication, and the National Latino and Asian American Study.

This Study

Scientists at Wayne State University, Detroit, MI; the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA, carried out the current study, which reports on data from CPES collected between February 2001 and November 2003 from 15,762 residents 18 years and older. The size of the sample makes it possible to examine health care use in ethnic/racial groups with a new level of detail, distinguishing between groups often surveyed as one population. The investigators were able to break out types of care used, and to assess to what extent the care used was consistent with the American Psychiatric Association (APA) Practice Guidelines for the Treatment of Patients with Major Depressive Disorder. Finally, they examined how factors enabling healthcare access—insurance, education, and household income—influenced rates of care.

A central finding was that overall, 51 percent of all those in the study who met criteria for major depression during the prior year received some kind of treatment for it, with only 21 percent receiving care that was consistent with the APA Guidelines.

Other key study findings addressed disparities, types and quality of care received, and factors that enable access to healthcare.

  • Prevalence and severity of major depression was similar among the five studied ethnic/racial groups—Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Caribbean Blacks, African Americans, and non-Latino Whites. However, African Americans and Mexican Americans were least likely to receive any care or care consistent with practice guidelines. Compared with non-Latino Whites for example, of whom 54 percent with depression received care, 40 percent of African Americans and 34 percent of Mexican Americans did. The rate of care for Puerto Ricans was close to that of Whites, 50 percent.
  • Across these population groups, psychotherapy was used more frequently than medications (pharmacotherapy). Overall, 34 percent received pharmacotherapy; 45 percent psychotherapy. Psychotherapy was more likely to be consistent with APA guidelines than pharmacotherapy, suggesting that adherence—the extent to which patients completed the recommended therapy—was greater for psychotherapy than pharmacotherapy. The contrast between the rates of Guideline-consistent psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy use was greatest among Caribbean Blacks, African Americans, and Mexican Americans.
  • Puerto Ricans had rates of treatment use, and treatment that was consistent with care guidelines, that were similar to, or higher than, non-Latino Whites.
  • Differences in factors enabling healthcare access appeared to contribute substantially to disparities in mental healthcare use, particularly for Mexican Americans. When differences in these enabling factors were controlled for statistically—so in effect, the population groups being compared had the same rates of enabling factors—the degree of disparities in use of care by Mexican Americans was reduced. For Caribbean Blacks and African Americans, statistical control of enabling factors reduced disparities in psychotherapy use, but not use of pharmacotherapy.
  • Health insurance coverage was associated with a greater likelihood of depression care, but not guideline consistent care. The pattern with education was reversed: education was associated with a greater likelihood of care that was consistent with the APA Guidelines, but not with greater use of care in general.


This study, with its large sample size and emphasis on minority groups, provides a more nuanced and detailed picture of the care received for major depression among different ethnic/racial groups and of factors that contribute to disparities. Lead author Hector González at Wayne State University said that Mexican-Americans make up over two-thirds of Latinos in the U.S.: "We found in our study that there are some really distinctive differences in mental healthcare use between Mexican Americans and other Latino subgroups that have not been previously reported." Estimates suggest that Latinos will make up close to one-third of the U.S. population by mid-century; the study findings suggest that Mexican Americans should be a focus of efforts to reduce health disparities to ensure the nation's health in coming decades.

All groups were more likely to have received psychotherapy than pharmacotherapy. Caribbean Blacks and African Americans were particularly unlikely to receive pharmacotherapy consistent with APA guidelines; enabling factors such as education, health insurance, and income did not explain the lower rates of medication use. The authors note possible reasons for this, including research indicating that perceived discrimination can shape health care seeking. They speculate that the non-immigrant status of Puerto Ricans—and with that, greater predominance of English language use within this group—may be factors in their relatively high rates of health care use.

Findings from this study will inform future research on adherence to various depression therapies, and the factors that shape differences in care among racial/ethnic groups. "Future studies," say the authors, "should explore the extent to which patients' subjective experiences of racial bias may affect their access and utilization of mental healthcare."


González, H.M., Vega, W.A., Williams, D.R., Tarraf, W., West, B.T., and Neighbors, H.W. Archives of General Psychiatry 2010;67(1):37-46.