Science Careers Blog

October 15, 2007

Depression in the Scientific and Technical Workforce

A report issued last week from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services) shows scientists and engineers are among the groups in the American workforce least likely to experience clinical depression. But the details show a more complex picture suggesting that scientists and engneers are hardly immune from this disease.

The report combines data from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health collected in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Of the 21 categories reported, 4.3% of those in the engineering-architecture-surveyors category said they had one "major depressive episode" in the past year, as did an almost identical 4.4% of those in the life-physical-social science category. That's the good news.

The not-so-good news is the large difference between men and women. Among those in the life-physical-social science category, 7.2% of the women reported at least one bout of depression in the past year compared to 2.3% of the men. In the engineering-architecture-surveyors category, the gap is even larger: 3.3% of the men experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year, compared to 11.1% of the women.

And there are other noteworthy findings. Our colleagues in mathematics and computer science are more likely overall than other scientific and engineering disciplines to experience depression.  In this group, 6.2% reported one major episode in the previous year, with women (10.4%) more likely than men (4.6%) to be afflicted.

The assistants and hourly wage workers in our labs and offices are also more likely to experience depression. Overall, 9.6% of the health care practitioners and technical workers said they had at least one bout of depression in the past year, as did 8.7% of education, training, and library staff, and 8.1% of administrative and office support. In all three groups, more women than men reported these episodes.

If you have had to deal with depression, either in yourself or a member of your family, you know how damaging this disease can be. If you have not had this first-hand experience, read the moving account from 2004, by former columnist Kat Arney, of how even scientists can get the blues.

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