Depression is a devastating condition that affects the individual and the people around them. It can range in severity: from feeling low, frustrated and fatigued to, at its worst, contemplating suicide.
It is not always clear what causes depression. Multiple factors – clinical, physical or social – can increase the risk, but it is not always triggered by a specific event or experience.
People who experience depression do not fit into a stereotypical ‘type’ of person. Depression can affect anyone, at any age and at any point in their lives. In fact, 300 million people suffer from depression worldwide. A stable job, a caring support system, an active social life and personal resilience do not act as impermeable barriers to depression. Depression can happen to anyone, and it is nobody’s fault.
Why we need to care
In Europe alone, 35 million people are affected by depression. In a decade, depression will become the leading cause of disease burden in high-income countries. While depression can happen to anyone, children and adolescents and people aged 75 and over are particularly at risk. It is already the leading cause of disease burden in people aged 10–24, while one in ten people over the age of 75 are more vulnerable to depression.
Depression is not an isolated condition. It has a compounding effect on other chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease. And it doesn’t just affect health – depression can seep into every crevice of a person’s life. It can affect their work, education and personal life. It can also be devastating to family and friends.
Addressing stigma in depression
Despite the well-established prevalence and impact of depression, one of the biggest takeaways we found during research for our report was the prevalence of stigma and a lack of empathy. Unfortunately, stigma seems to be a fixture in mental health. There is a severe lack of understanding that depression is an illness, and not a weakness of character.
As a result, stigma can be felt as an insurmountable barrier by people with depression. Stigma can affect people in different ways. They may feel ashamed to seek help, or simply may not know where to turn. Stigma in mental health can mean that there are no clear markers for where a person can go for help.
A call to empathy
It is precisely because of the nature of depression and the stigma surrounding mental health that we, as a society, have a responsibility to show greater empathy. We need to care about people with depression with the same regard that we care for someone with diabetes, cancer or heart disease. There can be no judgement towards individuals who are depressed.
People who are affected by depression are not isolated by choice. A common misnomer seems to be that such people are ‘hard to reach’. There is no such thing as a ‘hard to reach person’ – they are simply a person whom we have not found an effective way to reach. The onus does not lie solely on the person living with depression. It is important to recognise that, as a society, we must also take steps to understand, address and prevent depression.
For example, a programme in Canada called ‘Not Myself Today’ is a workplace initiative to reduce stigma, build greater awareness and understanding of mental health, and foster a supportive work culture. This simple programme has experienced nearly 100% success in increasing awareness and understanding. Featured in our report, it is an excellent example of taking ownership and practising empathy.
This is just one example of an intervention that has had a positive impact on people with depression. The programme tackles stigma in the workplace and enables those around the person with depression to better empathise with them. In the next instalment of our Words to Actions series, we will be featuring innovation in mental health services, targeted at digital solutions and practices that aim to drive meaningful change.
Words to Actions series
This blog post is the first of a series accompanying policy briefs based on a report published last year by nine leading patient organisations in mental health across Europe. Future policy briefs and blogs are part of the Words to Actions series, which will focus on specific findings from the report, including innovation in mental health services, depression in youth, integrated mental health services and suicide prevention.