This morning, the World Health Organization announced that depression is the leading cause of poor health and disability worldwide, affecting more than 300 million people. As someone with depression, this does not surprise me at all.
The WHO’s explicit designation of depression as a cause of disability is not insignificant given our narrow perception of what we consider a disability. Too many people still picture a faceless outline of a figure in a wheelchair: someone who can’t walk and whose identity centers on that fact. In reality, disability takes many forms, including ones that we can’t see.
For some people with debilitating depression, simple things like leaving the house, preparing a meal or bathing present both physical and mental challenges. To get real for a minute: When you’re deep in a serious bout of depression and you feel completely worthless and like nothing matters or ever will, getting off the couch to shower seems pointless. If you’re truly feeling mentally and emotionally numb, you might not be able to stand spending time with yourself, and wouldn’t want to subject others to it either — regardless of them insisting that it’s not the case.
I have the privilege of having health insurance and living in a city where having a therapist is as common as having a hairdresser — not to mention the platform to discuss mental health issues. I'm appreciative of this for many reasons, one being that I spent most of my 20s living in Ireland, where the stigma surrounding mental illness is still the prevalent mindset — especially when it comes to women. (Dealing with hard things is just our lot in life, you know? SUCK IT UP AND SMILE, LADIES.)
While we're on the subject, it's never helpful to say to a person with depression anything along the lines of, "But what do you have to be depressed about?" Putting the onus on someone to prove their depression and itemize their triggers is not productive. You probably mean well, but it would be far more supportive to believe us from the beginning.
Today’s WHO announcement is certainly a necessary and welcome step, but we need to move past surface-level acknowledgement that depression exists, recognize it as more than “just being sad” and make accommodations accordingly. This could happen through increased investment in mental health, the WHO suggests, noting that even in high-income countries, nearly half of people with depression don’t get treatment. And based on their research, every $1 invested in improving treatment for depression and anxiety results in a return of $4 in better health and ability to work.
As someone fortunate enough to have access to treatment for depression and anxiety, I can confirm that it has made an enormous difference in my life. I hope that the WHO's strong message brings us one step closer to mental illness being treated as seriously as visible conditions.