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WHO: Depression Largest Cause of Disability Worldwide

  • Lisa Schlein

FILE - The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

More than 300 million people, or more than four percent of the global population, were living with depression in 2015 - an 18-percent increase over a 10-year period.

New figures released Thursday by the World Health Organization show that depression was increasing worldwide and now was the leading cause of global mental and physical disability.

Dan Chisholm, Health Systems Adviser in WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, and a lead author of the report, noted that depression was a disorder that can affect anyone, at any point in their lives.

“If you look at the prevalence of different disorders around the world and you look at the disability that is associated with them - if you combine those together, depression ends up at the top of the list because it is very common,” he said.

“You can see one in 20 people in the world have it and then it has quite a high level of impairment or disability associated with it,” he added.

Corresponding data released in the same report found that anxiety disorders, which cover a range of conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, affected more than 260 million people, which represented more than three percent of the global population.

“Many people actually suffer from both anxiety disorder and depression simultaneously,” said Chisholm. “There is a lot of overlap between them.”

Numbers rising

Chisholm noted that anxiety disorders, which rose by 15 percent between 2005 and 2015, were now the sixth largest cause of disability and were particularly high in the region of the Americas.

FILE - A patient is seen walking toward a group therapy room at a mental health facility in the Balkans. Depression is now the leading cause of global mental and physical disability, a WHO study finds.
FILE - A patient is seen walking toward a group therapy room at a mental health facility in the Balkans. Depression is now the leading cause of global mental and physical disability, a WHO study finds.

The report found the prevalence rates for depression peak among older adults, affecting two percent more women between the ages of 55 and 74 than men. However, across all age groups, it said depression was 1.5 times more common among females than males.

Breaking a widespread misconception, Chisholm said the disorders were not diseases of the rich or the affluent. He said more than 80 percent of these conditions were present in low-and-middle-income countries.

He told VOA that depression around the world was rising mainly because the world’s population was growing and aging, particularly in developing countries.

“For example, African countries might have 40-50 percent of the population under the age of 15, but as they transition, they might have only 30 percent. So, you have more people reaching adulthood where the rates of depression are highest,” Chisholm said.

He said this was what was driving the increase over time in the numbers of people. Because of the demographic factors, he said, many countries were going to see a dramatic increase.

“Nigeria is going to double probably in the next 50 years. So, we can expect more cases of these disorders,” Chisholm said.

While depression was a growing problem in Africa, the report noted that nearly half of people living with this condition were in the heavily populated regions of South-East Asia and the West Pacific.

This report is a precursor to the World Health Day celebration on April 7. In a build-up to the event, WHO launched a one-year campaign in October called “Depression: Let’s Talk” to highlight the problems associated with depression.

‘So much stigma’

Alison Brunier, WHO Communications Officer, told VOA that the name of the campaign was chosen because “talking is really the first step towards recovery.”

FILE - An elderly man walks by an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo, Aug. 19, 2016. The elderly are said to be more prone to depression as they became more isolated from their communities.
FILE - An elderly man walks by an electronic stock board of a securities firm in Tokyo, Aug. 19, 2016. The elderly are said to be more prone to depression as they became more isolated from their communities.

“There is so much stigma associated with depression that often people do not want to talk about symptoms or the fact that they might have depression and so really that was the opening of the door in the campaign," she said.

“Talk to somebody you trust. It could be a parent, another family member, a friend, a teacher, a colleague. And that is really the first step to getting help,” said Brunier.

She added that people diagnosed with depression should seek psychotherapy or some other treatment.

The campaign mainly targets three categories of people. One is young people.

“The pressures on today’s youth are like no other generation perhaps,” Chisholm said. “We are thinking very much about what are the preventive and appropriate strategies, for identifying and managing disorders in that age group.”

The report notes that nearly 800,000 people died by suicide in 2015. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among 15- to 19-year-olds globally.

Another target group, he said, was pregnant women or those who have recently given birth, many of whom suffer from post-natal or prenatal depression. “Around 15 percent of women will suffer, not just the blues, but a diagnosable case of depression.”

The last target group was the elderly, who he said were prone to depression as they became more isolated from their communities.

“When we stop working or we lose our partner - when we become more frail and subject to physical diseases, disorders do become more common,” he said.

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