[Outlook]Dealing with depression

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[Outlook]Dealing with depression

The number of people diagnosed with depression is on the rise these days. With the recent suicides by the actors Ahn Jae-hwan and Choi Jin-sil, depression is drawing the attention of our society.

Depression is not a rare disease suffered by only a few. According to a recent survey, 4.3 percent of Koreans have suffered from it at least once in their lifetime. It is also known that 1.7 percent of the population - nearly 800,000 people - have suffered from the mental disorder in the past year.

Statistics show that one out of 10 depression sufferers commit suicide. A further revelation of the seriousness of the disease is the fact that more than 70 percent of everyone who commits suicide were clinically depressed.

Of all the different types of mental illness, depression reduces productivity the most, thus wreaking the most financial havoc on society. According to World Bank statistics, depression ranks second only to heart disease as the illness that will put the biggest economic burden on humankind in the future.

Why do an increasing number of people suffer from depression? Studies have found that it is a brain disease stemming from biological abnormalities in the brain.

But psychological and social factors also play important roles in the onset of depression. There are two psychological profiles that explain its onset.

The first is when a person begins to inflict harm on himself. The second is when a person feels hopeless, mostly because he suffers from a lack of communication with the people around him.

Instead of getting aggressive with others, people with depression sometimes harm themselves. Doing this instead of directing anger outwards is an abnormal self-defense mechanism that occurs under extreme stress.

Insults circulating on the Internet are widely believed to have played a part in Choi’s suicide. Such hostile comments represent a collective aggression directed ruthlessly toward one person.

In cyberspace, people can write cruel posts while hiding behind a mask of anonymity. Thus, one person can be attacked by a massive mob all at once, but there are few ways to address the problem or to file a complaint, no matter how angry he may feel and how unfair the situation may be.

In such cases, if anger is not expressed and released as it should be, and is instead directed towards oneself, depression occurs. Besides, these days, people are so busy attending to their own business that they find little time to take an interest in the activities or emotions of others, or to take care of others like they used to.

These days people also have fewer opportunities to meet with others, have meaningful conversations and seek comfort and consolation.

Many people with clinical depression have a hard time because they can’t talk about their problems with those around them. Many also don’t seek professional help.

Prejudice, lack of understanding, and ignorance about mental disorders make it even more difficult for people with such a disorder. Many still regard people with depression as simply being crazy. Many mistakenly believe that depression occurs because a patient doesn’t have a strong enough willpower to overcome hardship or despair.

It is very important to quickly diagnose depression and treat it from its early stages.

Depression is a treatable illness. But only after one gets professional help and treatment can one be free of the disease.

However, it is reported that in Korea, only 7.4 percent of people with depression take medication or receive treatment for their problem because of the widespread public bias against people with mental illness, and general ignorance about the disorder.

Our society should work together to prevent the number of depression patients from growing even further, and to reduce the social and economic costs that we are paying, and will pay, as a result of this illness. We must enhance our knowledge and understanding of depression and suicide; these prejudices and misunderstanding should be corrected.

We should run public advertising campaigns to better inform the public about mental illness, as advanced countries often do.

We need measures to help those who are under severe social stress or pressure and have few people to talk to, and therefore are more vulnerable to depression. We should make use of the mental health centers that we already have. These should offer more consultations to prevent patients attempting suicide; particularly we should provide more diagnosis and treatment.

Recently, harsh postings on the Internet have been an issue in politics. The authorities should prepare measures to reduce the social problems that are caused by such group hostility.

*The writer is a professor of medicine at Sungkyunkwan University and the Samsung Medical Center. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yu Bum-hee
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