What are the physical and mental health risks of untreated depression?
There are approximately 16 million adults in the U.S. who are living with major depression, but some statistics suggest that nearly 66% of people living with depression do not actively seek or receive appropriate treatment for their condition. There are a range of reasons people don’t seek treatment, including fear of the social stigma that is sometimes associated with mental health issues, lack of insurance benefits for mental healthcare, and a shortage of mental healthcare providers in a number of areas in the U.S.
But getting treatment for major depression, which means a period of two weeks or longer of depressed mood, problems with sleeping and/or eating, trouble concentrating, and problems with self-image, is essential. Untreated depression can not only have long-term effects on mental health, it can also increase the risk of several physical health problems. It can even impact your financial health. Depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for people between the ages of 15 and 44, causing more than 200 million missed days from work.
The effects of untreated depression on physical health
Untreated depression has been linked to a number of health problems, including:
- An increased risk of heart disease: When you’re depressed, your brain produces more cortisol, a hormone that’s released when you face mental or physical stress. Some studies have found that long-term overproduction of cortisol is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes. In people who have been diagnosed with heart disease, researchers have linked untreated or poorly controlled depression with poorer long-term cardiovascular outcomes and an increased risk of death in the months after a heart attack.
- A higher risk of developing diabetes: Being depressed has been associated with an increased risk for developing diabetes by some researchers. Although researchers have not yet found the underlying cause for this increased risk, they suggest that it may be related to an increase in inflammation in the body caused by higher than normal cortisol levels as well as the difficulty that people living with major depression often have following healthy lifestyle behaviors such as exercising and eating a healthy diet.
- Osteoporosis: Both women and men with depression may be at increased risk for osteoporosis. Some studies suggest that depression may contribute to the development of lower bone mass by reducing the redepositing of calcium and other minerals in your bones. In addition, researchers found an association between depression and the development of bone thinning in younger women who have not yet gone through menopause.
Lack of treatment may make depression more difficult to treat
In addition to the negative effects that untreated depression can have on physical health, lack of treatment can also contribute to a number of cognitive and psychological problems, including:
- Memory problems: In the brain, the hippocampus stores memories and also regulates the production of cortisol. Consistently higher than normal cortisol levels may slow the production of new neurons and cause existing neurons to shrink, which may lead to the development of memory problems.
- Substance abuse: Substance abuse affects approximately 20% of people living with depression and other mood disorders. It’s even more common in teens and young and middle age men with depression.
- Increased aggressive or risk-taking behaviors: Studies have found that men with untreated depression are more likely to exhibit anger and violent behavior and engage in risky behaviors such as aggressive driving and unsafe sex.
- Hard-to-treat or recurrent depression: When depression is left untreated for a long period of time, you can experience worsening symptoms that are more difficult to treat and require more intensive treatment. In addition, some researchers have found that when depression remains untreated for a long period, there is a 50% chance that the condition will return after successful treatment.
Getting treatment for depression is a key step in lowering your risk of developing the additional health problems associated with lack of treatment. You can find a mental health specialist through your health insurance’s physician network or online resources such as the American Psychiatric Association’s search tool. A health advisor can be another valuable resource and can help you find an experienced mental health specialist and provide ongoing personal support as you manage your condition.