Get What You Need

By Dr. Anthony Levitt

People often ask me, “Are health care professionals diagnosing too many people with depression, when really these people are just having a difficult time, or burn-out, or having difficulty coping with the demands of modern society?” This question is often followed by a second: “Aren’t too many people being prescribed anti-depressant medications?”

It is true that, like any medical condition, diagnostic labels can be applied inaccurately. And it is true that many people might be prescribed antidepressant medication, despite the fact that they don’t actually need that kind of treatment or they might be more suited to another treatment for depression. But this is also true for many medical conditions. What’s that old saying? “If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

However, the real problem is not over-diagnosis or over-treatment. The real problem is that there are hundreds of thousands of people in our communities who are suffering from major depression or clinical depression, who are in need of help, who never actually realize they are unwell or never realize help is out there – or that they deserve help.

Our research shows that of 100 people living in our community who have major depression, serious enough to interfere with their work or family life or social activity, only 45 will recognize they are in an episode of major depression. Of these 45, only half, or 22, will seek out help. Of these 22 who seek help, about half, or 12, will actually receive treatment that is standard and accepted as treatment for major depression (be that medication or counseling or light therapy, etc.) In other words only 12% of people with major depression living in our communities are receiving adequate help for their illness.

Could you imagine if I were writing about cancer and stated that only 12% of people with cancer in our communities received adequate help for their disease? There would be a huge outcry, and so there should be. We need to focus our attention on the reasons people don’t recognize signs and symptoms, and then don’t seek help and don’t receive adequate care. And, we need to encourage our governments, our funding agencies and our researchers to expand their efforts to support people who suffer unnecessarily with this disabling and devastating illness. We all need to realize that they deserve help and can find health and recovery.

If you or someone you care about is suffering in silence, reach out and get what you need. Contact your family doctor, the mental health unit of your local hospital, the Mood Disorders Clinic of a university-affiliated treatment centre or a self help organization like the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, Canadian Mental Health Association or the National Alliance for Mental Illness.


Dr. Levitt is Research Director in the Department of Psychiatry at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto. He specializes in the management of treatment resistant depression and bipolar disorder, and is a strong advocate for enhancing patient and family access to, and navigation of, the mental health system.                

For online resources, check out and                                                                                                                                              

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