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Ethnic Disparities Persist in Depression Diagnosis and Treatment Among Older Americans

Science Update

Older racial and ethnic minorities living in the community are less likely to be diagnosed with depression than their white counterparts, but are also less likely to get treated, according to a recent NIMH-funded analysis published online ahead of print December 15, 2011, in the American Journal of Public Health.

older African American male looking out to sea


Depression is a significant health concern for older adults, regardless of ethnic or racial status. Previous studies have found racial and ethnic differences in the diagnosis and treatment of depression among the general population.

Using 2001-2005 data from the nationally representative Medicare Current Beneficiary Survey (MCBS), Ayse Akincigil Ph.D., of Rutgers University and colleagues examined rates of depression diagnosis and treatment among older adults living in the community. The survey asked questions about health care use and costs, insurance coverage beyond Medicare, access to care, and use of services.


The survey found that about 6.4 percent of whites, 4.2 percent of African Americans, and 7.2 percent of Hispanics were diagnosed with depression. Among those diagnosed, 73 percent of whites received treatment (either with antidepressants, psychotherapy or both), while 60 percent of African Americans received treatment and 63.4 percent of Hispanics received treatment. These kinds of diagnosis and treatment differences are consistent with previous studies, the researchers noted. They also noted pronounced differences in socioeconomic status and quality of insurance coverage across ethnicities. Fewer whites reported having low incomes than ethnic minorities. However, these differences did not appear to account for the disparities in diagnosis or treatment rates.


The findings are consistent with the notion that depression continues to be under-recognized and undertreated among older minorities. According to the researchers, future research should investigate cultural factors such as help-seeking patterns, stigma, and patient attitudes and knowledge about depression as potential factors contributing to the disparities. For instance, ethnic minorities may be less likely to seek help for a mood disorder, and those with lower incomes may have more difficulty gaining access to specialized health care. In addition, they may be more likely to seek help from nonmedical providers, such as pastors or lay counselors, according to the researchers. Other research has suggested that minorities tend to cite stigma or shame associated with having a mental disorder as a reason for not seeking help for depression.

Differences in diagnosis rates may also reflect the notion that African Americans tend to have a greater sense of distrust of doctors in general compared to white patients, said the researchers. In addition, minority patients also may be more likely to present with more physical aspects of depression such as sleep problems or pain, rather than mood or cognitive symptoms, which can complicate detection and diagnosis of depression.

What’s Next

The researchers suggest possible ways to minimize the disparities in depression diagnosis and treatment among older minorities. For instance, psychiatrists and other health care workers could be offered public financial incentives for practicing in poorer communities where depressed older people may go untreated. In addition, adding cross-cultural education into professional training opportunities for health care workers could further reduce disparities. In the meantime, promising approaches such as universal depression screening programs could be implemented, the researchers concluded.


Akincigil A, Olfson M, Siegel M, Zurlo K, Walkup J, Crystal S. Racial and ethnic disparities in depression care in community-dwelling elderly in the United States. American Journal of Public Health. Online ahead of print Dec. 15, 2011.