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Depression is a pervasive health issue today, currently affecting one in five South Africans with a staggering 1-million+ Mzansians on some form of antidepressant medication. What’s even more worrying is that this figure only takes the private sector into account as statistics for the public sector are scant, which means the true figure could be more than double that.

South Africa however isn’t alone. According to a study published in The Lancet, mental disorders and substance abuse combined are the leading cause of non-fatal illness worldwide, contributing nearly 23% of the total global disease burden.

Mariska van Aswegen, spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics – a leading provider of antidepressant medication and advocate for mental wellness – says modern-day society is in the throes of a virtual epidemic of depression.“The numbers are frightening. More than 30% of South Africans will experience at least one episode of clinical depression in their lifetime, one in four people in the workplace have been diagnosed with depression and 31.5% of teenagers have attempted suicide. Mzansians also consume 56% more antidepressants than they did a mere five years ago,” she points out.

Many organisations will have launched campaigns this July in the wake of National Mental Illness Awareness Month in an effort to raise awareness about mental health conditions and the importance of good mental health, but the question still remains – what is the root cause and how are we manufacturing a depressed society?

Van Aswegen cites junk food, consumerism, chronic disease, psychological attachments, sedentary living and ignorance as the main culprits behind the rise in depression.

“Most of us experience occasional bouts of depression in our lives, usually brought on by a specific situation or major life event. These could include divorce, sudden unemployment or death of a loved one, but decades of research on mental health conditions have revealed correlations between certain lifestyle factors and increased depression rates.
“Eating too much junk food, for instance, has been scientifically linked to depression. A team of researchers from the University College London discovered that people who regularly eat dessert, fried food, processed meat, refined grains and high-fat dairy products are 58% more likely to be clinically depressed. Those that eat a healthy diet rich in whole foods – fruit, veggies and lean protein are 26% less likely to be depressed. Currently, the percentage of South Africans eating junk food at least once a month is in the region of 78% (26.5 million), which is set to increase to 34.1 million by next year. South Africans drastically need to take a closer look at what they’re eating.

“Secondly, psychological attachments are equally closely linked to depression, but are probably the most overlooked mental health phenomenon of our day. This is when feeling miserable is more familiar than feeling good. This kind of ‘coping mechanism’ is particularly prevalent in people who come from broken homes. It becomes their ‘safe place’ in a sense. As a result, this encourages them to make choices that keep them in the realm of familiar misery. By doing so they unknowingly sabotage themselves, which can be a vicious circle and difficult to combat on their own. Broken homes are also more prevalent today than ever before,” says van Aswegen.

Science too has proven that consumerism – seeking happiness in things that intrinsically cannot provide lasting happiness – leads to chronic depression.

Van Aswegen refers to research conducted at Northwestern University that found that those who place a high value on wealth, status and material goods are more depressed, anxious and less sociable than those who do not. “Materialism is a major modern-day affliction,” she says.

Van Aswegen further notes that the rise in chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer and diabetes also affect one’s mental wellness. “Based on research, nearly a third of individuals with a chronic illness also have a mood disorder, such as depression and anxiety. Chronic diseases are at an all-time high and already account for 40% of deaths in SA – a figure which continues to rise annually.”

Not exercising also increases one’s risk of depression. “Sadly 49% of South Africans don’t exercise regularly,” she says. “Moving your body releases feel good endorphins, which helps with detoxification and increases body temperature, which has an overall calming effect on the mind and body.”

Ignoring negative emotions could also lead to depression. “Feelings like sadness, hurt and grief are meant to be expressed. The natural flow of emotions cleanses the feelings from your body and ultimately aids in the recovery process.

“Many people might recognise symptoms of depression in themselves and even list ways of dealing with it, but few follow through. Don’t become comfortable inside depression. Know that severe cases of depression are dangerous and even life threatening. It’s not something that is necessarily easy to overcome, but there is much you can do.

“To those living with someone suffering from depression, always provide them with loving support. It’s the most powerful agent in the treatment of depression,” advises van Aswegen.

If you are experiencing feelings of worthlessness, constant fatigue, insomnia, suicidal thoughts, loss of appetite or interest in activities that used to bring you joy, speak to your doctor or contact Pharma Dynamics’ toll-free helpline on 0800 205 026, which is manned by trained counsellors who are on call from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.

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