Whether you think you’re depressed, or how depressed you are, could depend on how severe you rank your suffering compared to those around you, a new study finds. Researchers worry that could cause people to avoid seeking help.

People make inaccurate judgements about their depression and anxiety symptoms – potentially leading to missed diagnoses as well as false positive diagnoses of mental health problems, explain researchers at the University of Warwick in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making. This is of particular concern as vulnerable individuals surrounded by people with mental health problems may decide not to seek help because, compared to those around them, they perceive their suffering to be less severe than it actually is.

Conversely, those surrounded by people who feel depressed very rarely may incorrectly believe that their suffering is abnormal, simply because their symptoms appear to be more severe in comparison to others.

Researchers performed two experiments which found that people’s judgments of whether they were depressed or anxious were not mainly predicted by their symptoms’ objective severity - but by where they ranked that severity compared with their perception of others’ symptoms.

The study showed that participants’ beliefs about the distribution of symptoms in the wider population varied greatly.

For example ten per cent of participants thought that half the population felt depressed on at least 15 days a month, and ten per cent thought they felt so on two days or fewer a month.

Ten per cent of participants thought that half the population felt anxious on at least 26 days a month, whereas ten per cent thought they felt so on seven days or fewer.

“It is the patient that initiates most GP consultations about depression and anxiety, so that personal decision to see a doctor is a vital factor in determining a diagnosis,” said lead researcher Karen Melrose from the University of Warwick. “Given that fact, our study may explain why there are such high rates of under and over-detection of depression and anxiety.”

Melrose said people who could be the most vulnerable to mental health disorders – including those from certain geographical areas of the country or demographic groups where depression and anxiety are high – could be the very ones who are at highest risk of missed diagnoses.

“This research could help health professionals better target information campaigns aimed at these groups,” she said.