Richer countries are more depressed than poorer ones

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
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Researchers at the World Health Organization are discovering that happiness is harder to come by in richer, more developed countries than in poorer, less developed ones. Apparently, money can’t buy happiness, as the old adage says.

Leading the depression scale are the United States and France, ironically the two countries which are at great odds these days about what constitutes quality of life. Apparently, both are wrong, if the depression measures are to be believed. Neither two-hour lunches nor six weeks of paid vacation apparently make a difference in terms of the percentage of people afflicted by the blues, which stands at 21% across the Atlantic and 19% here.

China and Mexico reported the lowest depression rates, at 6.5% and 8%, respectively.

Researchers are not certain what accounts for this disparity, especially in light of the fact that people living in Mexico would appear to have more reasons to be depressed. Wealth and happiness, however, are relative concepts. One would assume that people living in the relative prosperity and peace of a place like the U.S. or France would lead to decreased levels of depression, but the fact is that whatever one’s socioeconomic status, stress is going to be present. And perhaps the nature of that stress is more corrosive to the psyche for the wealthier classes – or nations as a whole.

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Another theory is that wealthier countries tend to be more socially fragmented and individualistic, with the pursuit of a career often taking precedence over family or spirituality.

"Wealthier nations ... are industrialized nations where individuals rely less on family support for everything from childcare to marital advice," Dr. Sudeepta Varma, an assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University's Langone Medical Center, said. "There is a well-known link between social support being a protective factor against depression."

In face-to-face interviews, teams of researchers surveyed nationally representative samples of people in 18 countries on five continents -- nearly 90,000 people in all -- and assessed their history of depression using a standardized list of nine criteria. The results of the study’s findings are being published in the online journal BMC Medicine, as part of the WHO's Mental Health Survey Initiative.

The researchers divided the countries into high- and middle-to-low income groups according to average household earnings. The proportion of people who have ever had an episode of clinical depression in their lifetime is, on average, 15% in the high-income nations and 11% in lower-income countries, the study estimates.

Interestingly, the income-related trends did not hold for all measures of depression. When lead study author Evelyn Bromet, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stony Brook University, in Stony Brook, New York, looked only at episodes of depression that occurred in the previous year, the rate was nearly identical in higher- and lower-income countries, about 6%.

Does this reflect actual differences in depression rates, or could it also be that people in poorer countries are for some reason less likely to recall or relate episodes of depression from their past? It is also quite possible that folks in developed nations have a greater tendency to ruminate, or even exaggerate the negative in their past. This may even be related to a greater emphasis on psychological awareness – which is not to say that individuals in poorer countries are less psychologically aware, just that they may place less emphasis in ascribing traumatic events in the past as leading to negative emotional states.

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