The theme of World Health Day on April 7 is ‘Depression: Let’s talk’ and Prime Minister Narendra Modi did just that, talk about depression in his first Mann Ki Baat radio address to the nation after the BJP tsunami swept away the opposition in Uttar Pradesh. “We (in India) are afraid to talk about it (depression) openly,” said Modi on radio. “Suppression of depression is not good. Expression is always good. If depressed, share your feelings with others, it will make you feel better.” Health themes often get airtime in prime minister Modi’s speeches – he’s spoken on tuberculosis, diabetes, organ donation, antibiotic resistance, dengue, mother and child health, drug abuse, exam stress and yoga for health in the past – but what made Sunday’s speech special was that he was addressing an invisible disorder that stalks millions for life. Globally, 322 million have depression, around 4.4%, of the world’s population, with the disorder being more common in women (5.1%) than men (3.6%), estimates the World Health Organisation. Untreated depression disorders are the leading cause of the more than 788,000 suicides worldwide, which roughly corresponds to one death every 45 seconds. In India, 57 million persons have depression and 38 million have anxiety disorders.
More than the numbers, what’s worrying is the stigma that prevents people with depression and their families from seeking treatment. Depression is caused by an imbalance in brain chemistry, which be triggered suddenly or over time by genetics, changes in hormone levels, chronic illnesses, stress, grief or difficult circumstances , but it can be managed with medicines and therapy.
There are only 5,615 psychiatrists, almost all of them in metros and state or district capitals, registered with the Indian Psychiatric Society. In the absence of specialists, families and general physicians have to spot the first signs of depression to encourage those affected to seek treatment to manage the disorder and prevent repeat episodes. It’s not that people are not seeking treatment -- antidepressant use has shot up by more than 30% over the past four years -- up from Rs 760 crore in 2013 to Rs 1,093 crore in 2016 –but those getting help is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Indians between ages 15 and 29 in India. We cannot watch our future die of an illness that is inexpensive and easy to treat.