Depression, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), is a mental health issue characterised by “persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that people normally enjoy, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities for two weeks or more.”

It is estimated that over 300 million people around the globe are suffering from depression – a stark 18% increase between 2005 and 2015 – and has become the leading cause of morbidity and disability in the world.

“These new figures are a wake-up call for all countries to re-think their approaches to mental health and to treat it with the urgency that it deserves,” urged WHO Director-General Dr Margaret Chan.

More investments should be made in mental health care

Many individuals with mental disorders still do not have easy access to necessary treatment due to lack of support and fear of stigma. It is estimated that 50% of people with depression from high-income countries do not receive treatment.

“The continuing stigma associated with mental illness was the reason why we decided to name our campaign Depression: let’s talk,” said WHO’s Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Dr Shekhar Saxena.

“For someone living with depression, talking to a person they trust is often the first step towards treatment and recovery.”

Citing several studies, Saxena revealed that up to 80% and 50% of individuals who commit suicide in high-income and low-income countries respectively suffer from mental disorders, with depression being the most common health issue.

The consequence from the lack of access to mental health care is costly, and it only makes sense to invest in mental health.

According to a study led by the WHO, employers suffer a financial loss when employees are less productive and unfit to work, and government agencies also spend more on health and welfare expenditures. However, every dollar invested in improving access to mental health treatment, can lead to a return of four dollars in improved health and productivity.

“A better understanding of depression and how it can be treated, while essential, is just the beginning. What needs to follow is sustained scale-up of mental health services accessible to everyone, even the most remote populations in the world,” said Saxena.

Four in ten Malaysians suffer from mental health issues

Citing findings from the WHO, consultant psychiatrist Datuk Dr Andrew Mohanraj said that depression will “overtake cardiovascular disease in determining the disability-adjusted life year (Daly) of individuals within the workforce of a country.”

While the National Health and Morbidity survey in Malaysia reveals that 1.8% of all Malaysians suffer from depression, Dr Philip George, a consultant psychiatrist and addiction medicine specialist from International Medical University believes that the numbers may be downplayed.

“Though the National Health and Morbidity survey says only 1.8% of the Malaysian population are depressed, we think there is a flaw and believe that at least 40% of Malaysians suffer from mental health issues,” he said.

“The difference is Asians do not talk about their problems. Unlike Caucasians, Asians do not have the words for emotions and that is a huge barrier,” he explained, adding that people find it hard to open up about mental disorders due to the surrounding stigma.

More efforts needed to boost mental health support

“In Malaysia, the ratio is one psychiatrist to 125,000 patients and one psychologist to 110,000 patients,” said president of Consumers Association of Penang (CAP), S.M. Mohamed Idris, adding that the recommended psychiatrist-to-patient ratio by WHO stands at one health professional per 100,000 patients.

According to health deputy director general Datuk Dr Jeyaindran Sinnadurai, the ministry is aware of and is working to address the shortage of mental health facilities and professionals in the country.

"We understand there are certain limitations and since it is becoming acceptable for people to openly discuss mental health issues and address the need for it to be treated, we will definitely work towards improving the services needed,” he said.

Meanwhile, the 2011 Mental Health Atlas in Singapore revealed that there were 2.81 mental health professionals per 100,000 population in the country.

During the Budget 2017 statement, Singaporean Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that the government has projected an additional expenditure of S$160 million on community mental health issues in the next five years to provide support to individuals with mental health issues. MIMS

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