News / Africa

Many Millions Suffer from Depression

World Health Organization calls for an end to stigma against those with mental disorders. Credit: WHO
World Health Organization calls for an end to stigma against those with mental disorders. Credit: WHO

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Joe DeCapua
Wednesday (October 10th) is World Mental Health Day. The World Health Organization is using the occasion to call for an end to stigma against those who suffer from depression and other mental disorders.


Dr. Shekhar Saxena said more than 350 million people around the world suffer from depression.

“When we say depression, we are talking about the mental disorder, which is very specific and is much beyond the usual feelings of sadness that everybody gets once in a while.”

Saxena is director of the WHO’s Department for Mental Health and Substance Abuse. 

“The disorder of depression is characterized by sustained sadness for two weeks or more and also interference with day-to-day work or other everyday responsibilities. So it’s actually a disease than just an emotional state,” Saxena said.

And there are many causes.

“There are biological causes – change in the neurotransmitters in the brain – but also personality and environmental factors, which all give rise to what we then see – the syndrome of depression,” he said.

Dr. Saxena said trained medical professionals should be able to diagnose depression not only by a physical examination, but by asking the right questions. Those questions center on a person’s emotional state. Are there long periods of sadness or crying? Does a person have low self-worth, a feeling that life has no meaning or suicidal thoughts?

The World Health organization estimates one million people commit suicide every year with a “large proportion having experienced depression.” It also says up to one in five women, who give birth, suffer from post-partum depression.

A recent WHO-supported study reported that about 5 percent of the people in any given community had depression during the past year.

“Depression is a global problem, and all regions of the world have around the same figures of depression. In fact, it’s a myth that depression is very common amongst developed countries, and is perhaps not seen in developing countries. That’s completely false. And poor countries and poor societies, including in Africa, are actually particularly pre-disposed to depression because of a very high level of stress, as well as other physical conditions, like HIV/AIDS, like chronic diseases and other social and economic factors,” Saxena said.

While there are many causes, Saxena said there are also many treatments, including inexpensive medication. There is also therapy and other psychological and social interventions.

The World Health Organization warns stigma is a huge problem that prevents many people from seeking help.

“It’s very important that everybody recognizes depression as a condition and looks out for it amongst oneself, one’s friends and family. And support them to take treatment and to disclose that one can be suffering from this problem. Stigma can be removed by proper knowledge and proper attitude,” he said.

The WHO’s Mental Health Gap Action Program trains health workers in low-income countries to recognize mental disorders and provide treatment.

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