Depression: Let’s Talk

By Shekhar Saxena

This is the first in a series of posts from the World Health Organization focusing on mental health.

When I was in medical school 30 years ago, I saw people suffering from all kinds of physical illnesses, from heart disease to diabetes to cancer. What I was amazed to discover was that many of them were also suffering from depression. As a doctor in training, I realized that their physicians were not treating, or even acknowledging, their depression. This realization inspired me to become a psychiatrist, and to later work with governments from across the world to help bring mental health-care to all people, wherever they live.

Image courtesy of The World Health Organization

During my public health career, there has been much progress, yet barriers still remain. The greatest of them is stigma. Some countries are still using practices from several centuries ago, to “protect society” ̶ confining and abandoning people with mental disorders in asylums or psychiatric hospitals, often for life. Even in countries where treatments of illnesses like depression are easily available, many people suffering remain afraid to come forward and voice what they are going through, out of shame, a feeling of weakness, or for fear of losing their job or social standing.

Depression is one of the most common mental disorders — and the number of people living with the illness is going up. In just a decade, between 2005 and 2015, the estimated number of people living with depression increased by over 18%. It is the largest cause of disability worldwide. In humanitarian emergencies and ongoing conflict, all too present in today’s world, as many as 1 in 5 people are affected by depression and anxiety. There is an economic cost too, a large one. New evidence from a study led by WHO shows that low levels of recognition and access to care for depression and anxiety lead to an estimated economic loss of more than a trillion US dollars every year.

Yet, depression can be effectively treated, at relatively low cost. The starting point towards recovery is talking.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

For all these reasons, the World Health Organization decided to devote this year’s World Health Day, held on 7 April every year in celebration of the founding of WHO, to depression. The day will be the high point in a one-year campaign, Depression: Let’s Talk, that will run through to 10 October, World Mental Health Day. The overall goal of the campaign is that more people with depression, in all countries, seek and get help.

Our campaign site houses materials that can be used for campaign activities ̶ posters and handouts about teen depression, postnatal depression and depression among seniors, for example. Our campaign app makes it easy to get involved, for example by sharing campaign messages with friends, family or colleagues. For those who decide to go a step further, and organize an event, let us know what you planning.

With the approach of this year’s World Health Day on depression, now just a few weeks away, I remember the aspiration of my early career, that one day all people would have access to mental health care, wherever they live, and I see that day coming closer.

About the author: Dr Shekhar Saxena, Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the World Health Organization. Passionate about making mental health-care available for all people, everywhere.