That Problem in Your Head Is an Actual Epidemic

That Problem in Your Head Is an Actual Epidemic

Why you should care

Because no one wants to be doomed to sadness.  

Picture 350 million people — slightly less than the total population of South America — shuffling through the streets with a vacant gaze and gray complexion. This isn’t setting the scene for the next Walking Dead episode. Turns out, that’s a pretty accurate image of the world today, with 350 million the number of people globally who are considered clinically depressed.

To put that number in perspective, look around you. For Americans, one out of every 10 people you see has a diagnosable form of depression or an anxiety disorder. A fifth of American women older than 20 are on antidepressants — and the figure has increased by almost 30 percent since the turn of the century.

By 2030, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports, mental illness will be the

No. 1

health affliction in the Western world.

The lives lost and inherent disability will be greater than war, greater than stroke, greater than even cancer. At the same time, studies show sadness is spreading most rapidly among the young and wealthy. But if you’re older, you’re far from scot-free. Indeed, if you were born after 1945, you are three times more likely to experience bouts of depression, according to a nine-nation study out of Columbia University.

There are probably just as many factors leading to the rise in depression as there are antidepressants to treat the disorder, but central to the trend is the modern lifestyle. There is greater inequality and a weakened social fabric. We are malnourished but overweight, sedentary but sleep-deprived, constantly connected but lonelier than ever. We’re also older as a population, and depression is most likely to strike when stress and busy schedules hit their peak, during the working-age years between 25 and 55, says Daniel Chisholm, an adviser for the WHO’s Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse. And it’s no surprise that when people aren’t feeling enthusiastic about life, their production plummets. “It’s a hidden but huge economic burden,” Chisholm says.

If you weren’t feeling like crap already, did we succeed in bringing you down a notch? (No need to thank us — that’s what reporters are for.)

Some disagree with the whole notion, though, saying the only thing on the uptick is doctors handing out dubious diagnoses. “I’m very suspicious,” says University of Toronto psychiatry historian Edward Shorter. He attributes the so-called depression epidemic to lower standards for what sticks someone in the clinically depressed category. The number with true melancholia, which has a strong genetic component, has remained constant, he says: “They’re not deeply sad. They’re tired or anxious or have some other collection of somatic symptoms.”

Whether you call it depression or anxiety or fatigue, the prescription is the same: healthier lifestyles! New research reveals that higher levels of stress, hostility and depression are tied to a significantly higher risk of stroke and heart disease. Good health no longer just means low blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It means mental vitality as well.

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