People who think depression is caused by biological factors also tend to believe the disorder is more severe and longer lasting, compared to those who see less of a role for biological causes, according to a new study at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
At the same time, people who believe that biological factors can lead to depression also tend to be more optimistic that treatment will have a positive effect, said Dr. Sarah Mann, a former doctoral student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick who led the study.
The findings, published in the Journal of Mental Health, also show that people who think depression runs in the family through genetics or occurs because of a change in the brain are less likely to hold negative attitudes toward those with depression.
For the study, the Rutgers research team administered an online survey to 319 people who were asked about their beliefs, attitudes and experiences with depression and its treatment. Nearly half of the participants (48.6%) reported they had suffered from depression previously.
Using a Likert scale — a measurement of how much people agree or disagree with a statement — and an illness perception questionnaire, the research team analyzed their perceptions of the causes, duration, consequences and treatability of depression.
“Scientifically, very little is known about people’s understanding of depression and their feelings about those affected by this disorder,” said co-author Dr. Richard Contrada, a professor of psychology at Rutgers University.
“From a practical standpoint, those beliefs and attitudes may influence decisions people make about whether to seek treatment for their own depression. They may also affect their reactions toward depressed individuals, including prejudice and discrimination.”
After reading a description of depression, the participants were asked whether they believed they had experienced depression and, in a separate question, whether they believed a “spouse, romantic partner, parent, sibling or close friend” had.
If people reported previous experience with their own depression or with someone close to them, they were more likely to report a less negative attitude toward depressed people and greater acceptance, said Mann.
Among these individuals, there was also a significant link found between believing that depression has a biological cause and holding more accepting attitudes toward people with depression.
Researchers asked the participants their views about depression’s impact and whether they believe treatment is effective; their willingness to be in specific situations with people with depression, such as recommending them for a job or introducing them to friends; their own attitudes and other people’s attitudes about depression, and other questions.
The findings suggest that the way people respond to public health announcements highlighting biological causes of depression depends partly on their previous experiences with depression.
Though the impact of messages on public attitudes toward individuals with depression may be mixed, the researchers said, they may decrease affected persons’ self-blame and encourage them to seek treatment.
Between 2013 to 2016, 8.1% of American adults ages 20 and over had depression in a given two-week period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Women were almost twice as likely to have depression as men. About 80% of adults with depression reported at least some difficulty with work, home and social activities due to depression.
Source: Rutgers University