What is depression and why should Malaysians care?

Depression is a mental illness that many people do not truly understand. (Rawpixel pic)

According to the World Health Organisation, “Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease”.

In Malaysia, the 2017 National Health and Morbidity Survey found 29% of Malaysians suffered from depression and anxiety disorders compared with 12% in 2011.

Last year, Lee Lam Thye, patron of the Malaysian Psychiatric Association said depression will be a major mental health illness among Malaysians by 2020.

Unlike physical conditions like high cholesterol, depression is a mental illness that is harder to understand. Some people think having depression is the same with feeling depressed.

It goes without saying that everyday folk do not always have the best of days. Failing your driving exam, getting retrenched, getting into a fight with a loved one, even a dark, cloudy day can make you feel sad.

Sometimes, you don’t need anything to make you feel that way at all. Sadness just pops out of nowhere. But for most people, that feeling of sadness will be swept away soon enough.

Clinical depression does not allow that to happen. No matter how much you want it to go away, the medical disorder refuses to leave. It can linger on for weeks, making it hard to work, study, play, love, or just live for that matter.

There are many signs of depression; the most prominent are: a bad mood, loss of interest in your hobbies, an unusual appetite, negative thoughts, oversleeping or not sleeping enough, loss of concentration, restlessness or slowness, lethargy and most dangerously, thoughts of self-destruction.

According to psychiatric guidelines, displaying five of the above symptoms means you can be diagnosed for depression.

It’s not only changes in behaviour that are visible, but also physical changes literally in your head.

The frontal lobe of your brain and hippocampus shrinks and many of your body processes start behaving abnormally.

Stigmatisation of mental health issues can make it harder for people with depression to seek help. (Reuters pic)

Despite awareness of its existence and treatments available, scientists are still not completely sure what causes depression.

It is possible that one’s genes and the environment have something to do with it? However, there is nothing that can accurately predict where or when depression will emerge.

Because signs of depression are not necessarily visible, someone who looks happy might actually be struggling inside. It doesn’t matter how rich or successful one is, or how much one laughs and smiles.

Humans are very capable of masking what is going on inside, and behind a smile could be someone who feels completely alone in their struggle to live every passing day.

It can take a very, very long time for a person with mental illness to seek out help. And help is indeed available.

Medication and therapy together help to boost the brain chemicals needed to combat feelings of depression.

Ultimately, if you know someone down with depression, be kind and gentle with them. Encourage them to get the help they need and let them know that people care about them and their battles.

Put in a little help of your own by looking up therapists or preparing a list of questions to ask a doctor. For you, doing so may seem easy. For them, just taking these small steps feel like climbing a mountain.

If they feel guilty or ashamed, point out that just like asthma or diabetes, depression is another one of many medical conditions.

It is a not a sign of weakness, and it cannot be gotten rid of by just ignoring it. Pretending that asthma doesn’t exist doesn’t make any asthma patient breathe easier.

While showing them support, be careful not to mistake depression for just being sad. Comparing what they are going through to the usual brief moments of sadness will make them feel even worse.

Talk about depression in the open, rather than keeping it hushed up. Research shows that asking people about suicidal thoughts will make them consider against harming themselves.

Asian society has quite the unfortunate stigma about the discussion of mental health, and Malaysia is no different.

Men are expected not to cry, students have to sustain a barrage of comparisons with smarter relatives, workers are to do as they are told, people shouldn’t complain because their parents went through harder times.

With high societal expectations placed on everyone, it is hard to break the silence and even harder to get help.

The de-stigmatisation of mental health will make it easier for people with depression to get the help they desperately need, and perhaps save their lives.

Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but rather, of courage.