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How an Age of Anxiety Became an Age of Depression

Allan Horwitz

Milbank Quarterly
April 2010
Context: During the 1950s and 1960s, anxiety was the emblematic mental health problem in the United States, and depression was considered to be a rare condition. One of the most puzzling phenomena regarding mental health treatment, research, and policy is why depression has become the central component of the stress tradition since then.

Methods: This article reviews statistical trends in diagnosis, treatment, drug prescriptions, and textual readings of diagnostic criteria and secondary literature.

Findings: The association of anxiety with diffuse and amorphous conceptions of “stress” and “neuroses” became incompatible with professional norms demanding diagnostic specificity. At the same time, the contrasting nosologies of anxiety and depression in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III (DSM-III) extended major depressive disorder to encompass far more patients than any particular anxiety disorder. In addition, antidepressant drugs were not associated with the stigma and alleged side effects of the anxiolytic drugs.

Conclusions: Various factors combined between the 1970s and the 1990s to transform conditions that had been viewed as “anxiety” into “depression.” New interests in the twenty-first century, however, might lead to the reemergence of anxiety as the signature mental health problem of American society.

Allan Horwitz. "How an Age of Anxiety Became an Age of Depression." Milbank Quarterly, 88(10): 112-138, 2010