Talking about depression is the first step to beating it
Shin Young-soo says the illness, which has become the leading contributor to disability, is treatable – if sufferers can overcome the stigma to seek help
If someone asked you to identify which illness is the leading contributor to disability, what would you say? Maybe cancer, heart disease or diabetes? Or maybe HIV/Aids or tuberculosis? The answer is none of the above. Today, the leading contributor to disability caused by ill health is depression.
Depression is more common than most people think. Globally, more than 300 million people are living with depression. Between 2005 and 2015, that number has risen by over 18 per cent.
Yet, fewer than half of the people suffering from depression are receiving the treatment they need to live healthy lives. Mental health services and trained health providers do not exist in many places. Even where services are available, stigma prevents many people from accessing them.
This is nothing short of a public health crisis because untreated depression can have tragic consequences. Suicide claims the lives of more than 500 people every day in the WHO’s Western Pacific region. It is now the second leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 29 – a statistic that should jolt us all into action.
Depression is more than just feeling down. It is a serious illness characterised by persistent feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in once enjoyable activities, for at least two weeks, accompanied by physical and psychological symptoms such as disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, decreased concentration, and feelings of guilt or low self-worth.
Stigma is the biggest challenge we face in improving mental health today. Too many people view mental illness as a sign of personal weakness, and as something to be ashamed of. Even worse, some people with mental illness blame themselves for their condition.
Talking openly and honestly about depression and mental illness is one concrete way we can break down fear and stigma. This is why the WHO’s campaign for this year’s World Health Day is “Depression: Let’s Talk”.
Depression is manageable and treatable. Anti-depressant medication and talk therapy are effective for moderate to severe depression. A healthy lifestyle (regular exercise, work-life balance and a healthy diet) can benefit people with mild depression.
Anyone who has lived with depression knows it is an awful thing. Chances are, you know someone with depression, and you may even be suffering from it yourself. Please, talk to your loved ones and ask them if they’re OK. If they are depressed, tell them they’re not alone. All of us can play a role in helping to tackle depression.
Dr Shin Young-soo is regional director for the Western Pacific of the World Health Organisation. World Health Day, celebrated on April 7 every year, marks the anniversary of the WHO