T. M. Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology at Stanford, penned an interesting editorial this week in the The New York Times called “Is the World More Depressed?” She recounts her recent conversation with Indian psychiatrist Rangaswamy Thara, who reported the influx of people seeking help for mental illness and the rise in suicide in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, which had a suicide rate last year of 25 per 100,000 people. (For comparison, the rate in the United States is 12 per 100,000). Then Luhrmann cites the global statistics that place Thara’s observation in proper context:
The World Health Organization reports that suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world, and that by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world.
The Global Burden of Disease 2010, an extensive study published last December in the British medical journal The Lancet, set out to quantify time lost to healthy years of life through disability (a complex calculation) and found a 36.7 percent increase in the “burden” of mental illness and substance abuse disorders across the globe compared with 1990, although researchers concluded that this was a result of population increase and aging. In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the rate of antidepressant use in the United States rose by 400 percent between 1988 and 2008.
I spend a fair amount of my time questioning why human beings appear to be so much more depressed today than they were back before the Industrial Revolution, before Instagram and “26.2” stickers. I blame it on the regular suspects that you hear faulted for destroying the human psyche:
- Frosted Flakes, the Big Mac, and caramel frappuccinos—the cost of high fructose corn syrup, genetically engineered wheat gluten, and a pantry full of processed foods in our diet;
- The lack of human connectedness (in the flesh) and interdependence courtesy of the iPad and some of our proudest technological advances;
- The breakdown of family and social structures and community support as evidenced on the Dr. Phil Show;
- Four-eyed frogs, ponds with flesh-eating bacteria, backyard nuclear plants, and a world of environmental toxins;
- And my favorite six-letter word … STRESS … which covers everything from having too much to do in too little time to not knowing how to do nothing if there were time for that.
Luhrmann adds another consideration: Facebook’s in-your-face “I’ve got a better life than you” daily reminder. She mentions the University of Michigan study that found that Facebook has mastered the reverse warm-fuzzy and makes the average person staring at a photo of a party to which she was not invited less satisfied with her life. Luhrmann writes:
We know that social position affects both when you die and how sick you get: The higher your social position, the healthier you are. It turns out that your sense of relative social rank — where you draw a line on an abstract ladder to show where you are with respect to others — predicts many health outcomes, including depression, sometimes even more powerfully than your objective socioeconomic status.
There is, of course, much more awareness these days of mental illnesses. Because places like Tamil Nadu have introduced the word “depression” and “anxiety” into their vocabulary, its residents are more comfortable wearing the diagnosis of a psychiatric illness, much more so than even ten years ago. That’s not a bad thing if it means people are getting the help they need.
Andrew Solomon, author of “The Noonday Demon,” believes there is value in analyzing the “cultural determinants” of depression in order to better understand whether the distinctive qualities of such depressions can be determined by biological differences between, say, Indians and Australians, or by “patterns of expectation we impose on people according to the population they represent.” He writes: “The monolithic problem of depression cannot be addressed with a monolithic response; depressions are contextual and must be interpreted within the contexts in which they occur.” A suicide that occurred in Tamil Nadu happened for reasons different than those that drive the same tragedy in New York City.
Still, the unmistakable rise in mental illnesses across the globe is unsettling. Let’s talk about it. What’s your best guess? What’s going on?
Published originally on Sanity Break.