World Mental Health Day and the global crisis of depression

Today, 10 October, is World Mental Health Day. This day, sanctioned by the World Health Organisation, raises public awareness about mental health issues. The aim is to stimulate open discussion of mental disorders and to promote investment into treatment and prevention services.

The theme for 2012 is “Depression: A Global Crisis”. In support of this, the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) has compiled a highly informative PDF document on World Mental Health Day and on depression in particular – well worth a read.

Depression – a mental disorder that involves depressed mood, loss of interest, decreased energy, feelings of guilt and reduced self-esteem, disturbed sleep, suppressed appetite, reduced concentration and heightened anxiety – is indeed a crisis of global proportions, with a reported number of 350 million people worldwide suffering from some form of depression. That’s almost 1 in 20 people worldwide.

While various forms of treatment exist – including basic psychosocial support combined with antidepressant medication or psychotherapy such as cognitive behaviour therapy, interpersonal psychotherapy or problem-solving treatment – depression is often not correctly diagnosed and access to treatment remains a problem, especially in the developing world. It is estimated that in some areas less than 10% of depression sufferers receive treatment.

Bipolar affective disorder, a severe form of depression, involves disruptive mood swings between frenzied manic states and episodes of deep depression.
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In a way we are faced with polar opposite problems in the developed and developing world when it comes to treating depression. In the developing world, the disease is often not correctly diagnosed, and the necessary medication is not available, or there aren’t suitably trained caregivers to assist with the required therapy.  In the developed world, on the other hand, I personally think we tend to ‘grab the pills’ way to quickly. While antidepressant medication is a key component in the treatment of severe depression, what is worrying is the extent to which it is willy-nilly dished out to anyone and everyone who feels a bit down. Almost like the injudicious prescription of antibiotics for anything from a mild flu, when all that’s needed is some rest and recovery time, we are becoming a population popping ‘happy pills’ when the problem could be solved successfully, and with less side-effects, through therapy and even self-help approaches including regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, relaxation techniques, a regular sleeping routine, creating a stable daily routine, etc. As reported by the WFMH, “Innovative approaches involving self-help books or internet-based self-help programs have been shown to help reduce or treat depression in numerous studies in Western countries.”

While antidepressant medication is an important component in the treatment of moderate to severe depression, milder forms of the disease can be effectively treated through self-help treatments including regular exercise and healthy eating.
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On this day, spare a thought for the millions of people suffering from depression, and do what you can to be there and to support those needing our help.  If you feel you may be suffering from the disease, don’t hesitate to seek help – it can be treated. And make sure to get an informed opinion before necessarily opting for medication – there are many potentially less harmful alternative treatments out there.

To quote the WFMH, “On an individual, community, and national level, it is time to educate ourselves about depression and support those who are suffering from this mental disorder.”

World Pet Day, and the pros and cons of owning a pet

It is World Pet Day today. Actually, according to some sources it is World Animal Day, which is a significantly wider concept, but for the sake of this post let’s stick to pets.

The decision to get a pet can be quite a significant one. For many it’s a no-brainer, they couldn’t fathom the idea of not having a pet in the house. But at the same time it is a huge responsibility – more so than many people unfortunately realise.  Personally, being a freelance photographer who is regularly away from home on assignments across New Zealand, a pet would complicate things – I need to maintain a lock-up-and-go lifestyle. And having to check your pet into a kennels or cattery each time is a traumatic experience of both pet and owner.

Pets can have various health benefits, not least of all the fact that they make you get out and exercise more.
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There’s a lot to be said for getting a pet. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, for example, Dr Froma Walsh of the Center for Family Health at the University of Chicago says that “having a pet can meet many human psychosocial needs and has been undervalued in the field of mental health.” Pets reduce stress through the companionship and unconditional love they give their owners. According to Dr Walsh, heart attack survivors who have pets are likely to live longer. Relationships with pets help people through hard times and “provide connectedness in an era when family connections are fragmented.”

There’s a plethora of articles claiming health benefits from pet ownership – these range from decreased risk of heart attack and lower blood pressure, to positive psychological benefits.  I am sure most pet lovers will agree that their pets are beneficial to their health and well-being.

Interestingly enough, however, a recent article from the New York Times suggest that the health benefits of pet ownership may have been overstated. For the elderly, in particular, a cat or a dog can be a potential risk – Judy Stevens of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention is quoted as saying “Over 86,000 people per year have to go to the emergency room because of falls involving their dogs and cats, and these fractures can be devastating for the elderly.” Harold Herzog, Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University, furthermore refers to studies that show the more attached elderly people are to their pets, the more depressed they are, that people with strong social networks are not made happier by their pets, and that adolescents with pets reported more psychological problems than those without.

The one area where there does not appear to be an argument is that pet owners, or dog owners to be exact, tend to be more active – according to a Canadian study dog owners walked almost twice as much per week as their dog-free counterparts. And that is definitely a good thing.

Personally I don’t think it is possible to make blanket statements about the benefits (or not) of pets – it probably comes down to personal preference, with the level of benefit derived from a pet being different for different personality types. I do, however, strongly believe that if you do get a pet, you make a multi-year commitment that you need to be sure you can honour – the pet depends on you for love and care and there are way too many abused and abandoned pets already.

So for all the pet owners out there – happy Pet Day, and look after them well. And for the rest of you – go out and get some exercise! 🙂