Thinking about Depression Globally

  • About half of mental disorders begin before the age of 14
  • Around 20% of the world’s children and adolescents are estimated to have mental disorders or problems
  • Most low- and middle-income countries have only one child psychiatrist for every 1 to 4 million people
  • About 800,000 people commit suicide every year, 86% of them in low- and middle-income countries
  • More than half of the people who kill themselves are aged between 15 and 44
  • The highest suicide rates are found among men in eastern European countries
    Source: WHO/BBC News

The World Health Organization (WHO)  just released their prediction that by 2030, depression will be the “single biggest cause for burden out of all health conditions,” with its effects felt both economically and sociologically. This prediction comes as Athens, Greece, hosts the very first Global Mental Health Summit.

“One could call it a silent epidemic because depression is more often being recognised, but it has been there throughout and is likely to increase in terms of proportion when other diseases are actually going down,” says WHO’s Dr. Shekhar Saxena to BBC News. “Depression is as much of a disease as any other physical disease that people suffer from and they have a right to get correct advice and treatment with in the same health care settings which look after other health conditions.”

While that may be her hope, that’s not the reality. Currently, most developing countries spend less than 2% of their national budgets on mental health care, though most of 450+ million affected by mental disorders live in developing countries. “We have figures to show that poorer countries have actually more depression compared to richer countries and even poor people in rich countries have a high incidence of depression compared to the richer people in the same countries,” says Dr Saxena. The BBC News article, Mental Health: a Global Challenge, highlights experiences of people in these countries. Compared to low-income countries, high-income countries allocate 200 times more resources to mental health.

“It actually accounts not only for a significant proportion of government spending in developed countries, it also makes a impact on their GDP as well. Professor Martin Prince, professor of epidemiological psychiatry at King’s College, London has tried to calculate in financial terms how much of a burden a depressed person can become. ‘Part of this is through lost productivity because people with serious depression are much less likely to be employed and to stay employed. Then there’s the cost to society of providing, for example, incapacity and unemployment benefits, particularly in rich developed countries,’ he says. ‘These costs combined amount in the UK, it’s estimated, to about £12bn ($19bn) per year or around 1% of the gross national product, so these are absolutely enormous sums.'” (BBC News)

I think I had forgotten that depression is not just an American problem. Sometimes when all we hear about is how overmedicated our society is, we unintentionally begin to forget that depression is an epidemic that goes beyond just discussing medication or getting a therapist. I realize how privileged I’ve been because I can’t imagine being depressed and not have any means of getting any sort of treatment. There was a recent article in Scientific American about how depression may have been an adaptation that brought certain useful, cognitive advantages, but from looking at these stats, I don’t really see such actual benefit.

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