The Public Health Impact of Major Depression: A Call
for Interdisciplinary Prevention Efforts
Katie A. McLaughlin
Published online: 6 July 2011
Society for Prevention Research 2011
Abstract Major depression is a consequential public health
problem in the United States. Depression has long been
recognized as an important target of intervention in
psychology and psychiatry, but these fields have focused
efforts primarily on treatment rather than prevention.
Although effective preventive interventions targeting high-
risk groups have been developed, they have thus far had
poor reach and sustainability in the community. The
development of sustainable preventive interventions that
have the potential to impact population health represents a
critical goal for the field. To this end, a research agenda
incorporating the perspectives of both mental health
disciplines and public health is proposed as a guide for
future depression prevention research. Increased interdisci-
plinary collaboration between mental health disciplines and
public health is recommended to develop, enact, and
evaluate multilevel preventive interventions aimed at
reducing the population health burden of major depression.
Major depression is a prevalent and disabling condition that
constitutes an important public health problem in the
United States. This growing problem has been identified
by numerous organizations as among the largest health-care
priorities in the country (Healthy People 2020, 2010; U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services 2000). To date,
mental health interventions for depression have focused
almost exclusively on an individual treatment approach.
Recent efforts to develop preventive interventions for
depression have been successful (e.g., Gillham et al.
1995; Clarke et al. 2001) and suggest that depression is
amenable to a public health approach to disease prevention.
Although the contribution of depression to disability in the
population is recognized as an important public health
concern (e.g., Murray and Lopez 2002), depression has
been largely ignored as a target of public health interven-
tion. Moreover, although the recent success of indicated and
selective prevention programs in clinical psychology is
encouraging, substantial progress must be made to develop
preventive interventions that are sustainable and accessible
to larger segments of the population. To this end, increased
collaboration between mental health disciplines and public
health is recommended to enact a multilevel approach to the
prevention of depression (see Fig. 1). This review first
highlights the public health impact of major depression.
Recommendations for developing preventive interventions
that capitalize on the strengths of mental health and public
health approaches to prevention are presented along with
strategies for increasing interdisciplinary collaboration.
Epidemiology of Depression
Prevalence and Course
Depression is one of the most common manifestations of
psychological distress in Western societies. Depression is
the single most common mental disorder in the United
States. National surveys estimate that approximately 16–
17% of U.S. adults and 11–12% of adolescents have
experienced a major depressive episode at least once in
K. A. McLaughlin (*)
Division of General Pediatrics, Children’s Hospital Boston,
Harvard Medical School,
300 Longwood Avenue,
Boston, MA 02115, USA
Prev Sci (2011) 12:361–371