Photo via National Geographic

According to a report released last week from the World Health Organization (WHO), depression is the leading cause of illness worldwide. WHO estimates over 300 million people in the world are currently depressed (which is about the population of The United States, for reference), an increase of over 18 percent in the last decade. In response, WHO has launched a year-long depression awareness program called “Let’s Talk” and dedicates World Health Day to the cause.

Internationally, mental illness accounts for 14 percent of disease, but the rate differs among regions. The Argentine Department of Health estimates the Latin American and Caribbean regional rate of mental illness is closer to 22 percent. In Argentina, the department estimates 25 percent of people will experience mental illness at some point in their lives.

Buenos Aires, a city famous for the highest proportion of psychologists to residents, is no exception. “Despite this high prevalence [of depression], nearly 8 out of every 10 people that suffer with a mental illness do not access treatment,” says Hugo Cohen, member of the Committee of Experts for WHO [of the Americas] and vice president of the Latin American Federation for World Mental Health. “Therefore, this year the WHO dedicates World Health Day to depression. This, together with anxiety and alcohol disorders and are the most prevalent health problems.”

Let’s Talk leads a multi-faceted approach to combating depression globally. The first steps to increasing treatment is to “address issues around prejudice and discrimination.” Dr. Shekhar Saxena, WHO Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, says “The continuing stigma associated with mental illness was the reason why we decided to name our campaign Depression: Let’s Talk… For someone living with depression, talking to a person they trust is often the first step towards treatment and recovery.”

One example of pro-mental health awareness is their poster campaign, like this design for the Americas:

“Depression: Let’s Talk.” Posters include pairs in the home, school, work, and community. Photo via WHO.

Besides easing stigma, the WHO also hopes to encourage investment in mental health treatment. Beyond being important to citizens’ health, investments in treating mental illness improve professional and personal productivity. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, depression is the second largest cause of disability in Argentina. Failure to scale-up mental health treatment, according to a WHO study, would lead to trillions of US dollars loss annually between 2016 and 2030, which would be felt by households, employers, and the government. On the flip side, for every US $1 spent on mental health reaps $4 from improved health and productivity.

Depressed individuals  may be less productive for a variety of reasons. WHO’s Let’s Talk campaign’s educational materials identify depression as a risk factor for other noncommunicable diseases and disorders, like diabetes and heart disease, suicide, and lifestyle-changing symptoms. Depression is marked as a “persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that people normally enjoy, accompanied by an inability to carry out daily activities, for 14 days or longer.” Depressed persons may experience “a loss of energy, a change in appetite, sleeping more or less, anxiety, reduced concentration, indecisiveness, restlessness, feelings of worthlessness, guilt or hopelessness, and thoughts of self-harm or suicide.”

Dr. Saxena says, “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.”

Argentina’s abundance of psychologists in Buenos Aires is a promising start, and stigma here is minimal compared to the rest of the world. The National Mental Health Law 26.657, implemented in 2010, is another progressive step towards providing greater access to mental health coverage in Argentina.

However, there are still barriers towards implementation and access. Cohen further adds, “Unfortunately, since this sanction, very little has been done… Argentina is one of the countries in the world with the greatest proportion of psychiatrists and psychologists per capita, the amount of untreated population is no different than countries with three or five times less specialists.”

If you want to learn more about the program, how you can help in your community, or mental health resources, check out the following pages: