Over 350 million people around the world have depression, according to a report issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) on World Mental Health Day (10 October).

Depression is a mental disorder that undermines people's ability to function well. However, the stigma associated with the disorder stops millions of people from seeking medical help. Another problem with stigma is that a considerable number of those with depression fail to acknowledge that they are ill.

WHO calls for an end to the stigmatization of depression.

We all have occasional fluctuations in mood; depression is completely different. Depression forces the individual into a feeling of sadness that persists for long periods, at least two weeks, according to WHO. It interferes with our ability to function properly at home, school or work.

Fortunately, depression is a treatable illness. Treatments today include medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of the two. Depressed people and those close to them need to become actively involved in addressing the disorder.

Before reaching out for support, it is vital that the depressed person recognizes their disorder. Prompt treatment is best, i.e. the earlier treatment starts, the more effective it tends to be.

Dr Shekhar Saxena, Director of the Department for Mental Health and Substance Abuse, USA, said:

"We have some highly effective treatments for depression. Unfortunately, fewer than half of the people who have depression receive the care they need. In fact in many countries this is less than 10%. This is why WHO is supporting countries in fighting stigma as a key activity to increasing access to treatment."

A combination of obstacles stop people from seeking help for depression, such as a lack of proper understanding of the condition and cultural attitudes.

Depression is common everywhere

It is a myth that depression is something that predominantly affects Western societies. Researchers from the University of Queensland, who claim to have made the most comprehensive study of depression and anxiety, concluded that depression and anxiety exist in every society in the world today.

According to WHO, depression rates are similar throughout all regions of the world. A recent WHO study found that approximately 5% of people over the last 12 months had depression.

Depression is caused by a combination of biological, psychological and social factors. Physical health has been shown to be linked to depression risk - people with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, psoriasis, and a number of other illnesses and conditions have a much higher risk of developing depression than other "healthy" individuals. Up to 20% of women develop post-partum depression (post-natal depression) after giving birth. Spouses of people who had a heart attack have a much higher chance of developing depression.

Unpleasant or extreme circumstances may also raise depression risk, such as unemployment, disasters, wars, and losing loved ones. In extreme cases, depression can drive a person to commit suicide, or attempt to do so. Nearly one million people commit suicide annually worldwide; many of them were suffering from depression when they ended their lives.

What is WHO doing?

Governments and health authorities need to include depression treatment as part of their basic health care packages. WHO says it helps many governments around the world achieve this. Through WHO's mhGAP (Mental Health Gap Action Program), health workers in developing nations are trained to spot mental disorders and provide effective care, psychosocial assistance, and medications for people with depressive symptoms.

World Mental Health Day was established in 1992 by the World Federation for Mental Health. Its aim is to improve public awareness about mental health issues and to encourage open discussion of mental disorders, more investment in the prevention of mental disorders, as well as the promotion of effective treatments.

Written by Christian Nordqvist