The WHO states that at any one time, over 300 million people have depression, which is approximately 4% of the world’s population (WHO, 2015). Depression is the leading global disability and the 10th leading cause of early death. It is a rising epidemic, and you may notice the effects in your own social circle. Do you feel like more people you know are suffering from depression or another mental illness?
But the question we should be asking is whether the epidemic is new, or simply being brought to the light. Do we have more people depressed today, or do we have more people who will admit to being depressed today? For many of my family, I am the first one to share my struggle with depression openly. In the past, I have dealt with being told that I am not really depressed as I didn’t have a reason to be. I have been recommended not to discuss my depression online because I won’t be able to get a job later, or people will judge me for it. But in my own inner circle, depression is far more prevalent and discussed. Are we the new generation that suffers more from depression, or the first generation actually to talk about it?
1. Social media
I don’t think I need to list the reasons why social media is considered detrimental for mental health - but if you’re curious, I do have an article about how social media actually helps mental health too. We are repeatedly shown the best parts of peoples lives and led to wonder why our own don’t look that way. Not just in a superficial of “Oh, why don’t I visit luxury yachts?” or “Why don’t I go out to nice brunch places?”, but also on an emotional level. I used to look at all these people on Instagram and wonder how they all manage to be so happy and smile so much. Now I make sure my Instagram feed features both sides, but it can still hit me in the gut on the darker days. Social comparison is a mental health killer.
We also spend so much time online that we can forget the importance of offline time together. The current COVID crisis highlighted the effects of this. We can feel more alone than ever but in a constant online crowd. It also adds another layer of pressure to our lives through the need to perform and match others.
2. "First world problem"
There’s a ‘joke’ where people call depression a first world problem or a luxury. I would never go so far to label it as a ‘luxury’ to have any form of depression, but you can consider the basis of their point. The logic behind is that if you live in challenging circumstances, you don’t have the time to reflect or have introspection. You can’t hate your life when you’re just trying to get by. When things are awful, you have to self-motivate enough to push forward. As we try to implement governments that care for the people and support them, maybe more of us get to have this first world problem?
3. Increasing pressure
I’m sure like was difficult a century ago, and I only have two and a half decades to use, but life is pretty tough today too. There is so much pressure. You can’t just finish school, go to college and leave with a job, get married and buy a house. Firstly there aren’t jobs for us to leave to, and college doesn’t prepare us for any. We don’t get married as young as we have so much choice and Tinder reminds us of it. We can’t buy a house because have you seen those prices? Every century or decade has its struggles, and we’re here reacting to ours.
Also given that there was far less communication before the internet, we couldn’t compare as much. There was less pressure to do so much. It isn’t enough to work a 9 to 5 job; you need a side hustle, a passion, a life goal. I’m not content with the idea of working, having a family and retiring. I honestly wish I was, but I have so much ridiculous ambition. We want to be remembered after we’re gone, touch people’s lives, and that pressure eats away at our psyche and sense of self-worth. We need everything nowadays, and it isn’t hard to feel like you’re falling short.
4. Given the room to be
Some people will argue that there are higher rates of depression today because there can be. We are given the space to go through mental illnesses the way people couldn’t centuries ago. I am not at all saying I agree with this, but it’s a common thought so it should be included in this article. We’ve automated a lot of other tasks in life, so perhaps the extra time that isn’t spent hunting for our food or walking miles to each different food stall gives us too much space to think and reflect. We can take time off because we have government and job systems that will support us. It’s like wondering if more people struggle with a ‘burn out’ because we recognise them and have the room to help them.
As a true IB student, I was taught never to accept the facts at face value. So I look at the statistics of increasing rates of depression, and I say nay. It isn’t that more people are depressed today, it’s that we’re more aware of the people who are depressed, and the instance of depression in itself. Let’s break that down into three categories.
A century ago if someone wasn’t sleeping well, had memory issues and a lowered mood, they might not think twice of it. Nowadays, we are so accustomed to medicine, explaining everything that we are more likely to see a doctor or at least Google our results. The symptoms of depression have been highly publicised, and so we recognise when we, or someone we know, is experiencing them. Therefore if a study goes out asking if we have depression, we know we did, or we at least think we did and will indicate this. But even two decades ago, someone experiencing clinical depression could’ve ticked ‘no’ and not even thought twice about it. Depression was often lost in easier to identify disorders, such as alcoholism or another addiction.
2. Social stigma
We recognise depression, but that doesn’t quite mean we are as adept at accepting it. However, we are further than we were a century ago, a decade ago, even a few years ago. I will continue to hold onto that and do my part to push us even further.
Depression is slowly becoming less of a taboo subject. In the 50s, someone suffering from depression might undergo electroshock treatment or be fobbed off with some strong medication. Their children most likely would never even know. Nowadays, we recognise talk therapy and the importance of being open about our struggles. People may discuss their mental health issues with family and close friends. That allows others to recognise similar symptoms, or to open up about their pain. Depression feels more prevalent because people are talking about it. Just as many people were likely filled with self-hate and suicidal thoughts several decades ago, but everyone smiled and played their role.
3. Data collection
Once more, let’s picture it. There are just as many people depressed three decades ago or whenever, but the difference is that no one is finding out. Data collection has come such a long way in recent times.
I. Nowadays, most surveys related to mental illness will not just ask whether you have it as a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ question. Because you might not know you have it, but ticking off the relevant symptoms will alert the researcher or psychologist to the fact that you do apply for it. You could feel the social pressure to say that you don’t suffer from depression, but when answering questions on a Likert scale, you feel more comfortable admitting the severity of symptoms. Mental illness isn’t a one box fits all, and so why would we expect one box on a survey to do the same? I have high functioning depression which means that many people who know me well will never realise how severely I struggle. I still have depression, and it is just as valid. But I do force myself out of bed, and I do partake in numerous activities. I do the opposite and push myself too hard in an attempt to regain self-worth. 1950s depression wouldn’t recognise me if my self-harm were right in front of their faces.
II. We can do broader searches with data collection! We have the wonderful internet and many resources to gather a larger and more randomised sample. That reduces a lot of potential sample bias and allows us to conduct more comprehensive searches and not involve people we know directly.
III. And on this note, this explains the whole ‘depression is a first world problem’ myth as those are the places that this research is usually conducted. These places are more aware of mental illness and working to treat it.
And there we have it, the truth of the matter. Are people more depressed? Or are we simply more aware of depression and discussing it more openly? I know the feeling. I was diagnosed with my personality disorder over a year ago, and then it suddenly felt like so many people had BPD as well, even though I had barely heard of it before that. But after some reflection, I realised that the difference was that I was discussing my BPD, which led others to open up to me. Additionally, there is the fact that my friends and I are in the age group to be correctly diagnosed. And maybe I attract a certain sort of person as well.
If we’re going to say that the rates of depression are increasing, we should only do so in order to indicate the need for change. To reduce the harmful impacts of social media, fight social stigma and reconnect with each other. Because the rates of mental illness should be decreasing, we are (hopefully) working to be more aware and accepting of each other, and so we should be kicking depressions ass. We should recognise it earlier, teaching parents how to prevent and react, and normalising therapy. In a decade, I want to write an article entitled “Are fewer people depressed today?”
And the contents would be “HELL YEAH!”
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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