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Health: true or false?

How depression and anxiety needn’t be lifelong afflictions

It’s a common misconception that mental illness is something a sufferer has to endure permanently, but with appropriate professional treatment these debilitating conditions can be managed and ameliorated

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 March, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 March, 2017, 5:52pm

Are mental illnesses like depression and anxiety incurable and lifelong?

The short answer: No

For many people living with mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, it can be hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, this is one of the most common misperceptions about mental illness in general – that it is something the sufferer has to deal with for the rest of his life because it is incurable or untreatable.

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Thankfully, for those with a mental health condition, there is hope for healing. According to Dr Tommy Chan, registered clinical psychologist at Matilda Medical Centre in Hong Kong, which has clinics in Central, Tsim Sha Tsui and The Peak, as long as treatment is sought early enough and medical intervention takes place in time, it is reasonable to say that most mental health conditions are treatable or at least manageable in the long term.

Depression and anxiety are among the most prevalent mental disorders in Hong Kong, but Chan says that they tend to be underdiagnosed. “This may be due to a lack of access to the mental health system, a lack of knowledge about the conditions, misdiagnosis, or stigma surrounding these illnesses that prevents many people from getting help. As depression and anxiety often show up as fatigue or physical pain and discomfort, these conditions can also be hard to pinpoint.”

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People with depression tend to have mood disturbances, low energy levels and a lack of enthusiasm for life. They may also experience problems with concentration and memory and feel socially isolated, or “cut off” from others, including loved ones. In some cases, they may even have suicidal thoughts. On the other hand, people with anxiety experience a dysfunctional fear. Their obsessive thoughts may reach a point where the sufferers have trouble falling asleep or are unable to function normally on a day-to-day basis. To curb their anxious feelings, they may turn to alcohol or drugs.

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“Depression and anxiety usually occur together, so there will be overlapping symptoms,” says Chan. “But the good news is that, whether the conditions are inherited or caused by external factors such as a divorce or a death in the family, they need not stay with the sufferer for life. They can be managed and definitely improved.”

One of the keys to getting depression and anxiety – or any mental disorder – under control is early intervention and proper treatment. “First of all, there should not be any guilt or embarrassment associated with seeking help,” Chan explains. “Once you have been diagnosed, it’s important to make sure that you get the right kind of treatment. This may take the form of medication or psychotherapy, or a combination of the two.

“Medication is useful in some cases but it’s not sustainable in the long term and there may be negative side effects. Cognitive behavioural therapy [CBT], a form of psychotherapy, can help the patient by changing the thoughts and behaviours that may be holding him back. According to the British Psychiatric Association, CBT is effective at bringing resolution to the issues that have caused the patient’s depression or anxiety. It offers lasting results and minimises the likelihood of the symptoms recurring.”

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It’s also important for sufferers of mental illness to educate themselves on their condition, get support from their loved ones, and, most importantly, make the commitment to getting better. “You need to be interested in learning about your condition and also be open to receiving help if you want to move forward,” says Chan. “Otherwise, you won’t get the kind of treatment, care and support you need and deserve, and without these, your condition may worsen, even escalating to self-harming behaviour or suicide.”