Depression can affect anyone

By Bridget Backhaus

Depression has been referred to as the ‘common cold’ of mental illness due to its prevalence in modern society.

As someone who has had close encounters with the black dog, and who has witnessed its devastating effects on friends, I partially resent this phrase. I can understand it, but I object to this innocuous phrase that tries to simplify and euphemise a complex and dangerous issue.

Depression can affect anyone

Photograph by D. Sharon Pruitt

There seems to be weekly research and reports about the rise of depression in modern society.

As stated so eloquently by writer Daniel Goldman, “if the 20th century ushered in the Age of Anxiety, its exit is witnessing the dawn of the Age of Melancholy.”

In the same way that scurvy and low life-expectancies were accepted fates many years ago, is depression something that is now just a part of life?

There’s no shortage of research that documents the growth of depression here in Australia.

The Inspire Foundation has released a report called ‘Counting the cost: The impact of young men’s mental health on the Australian economy’. It found that mental illness in young men aged 12-25 costs the Australian economy $3.27 billion each year. That’s $387,000 per hour in lost productivity.

While looking at mental illness in terms of economic values may initially seem callous, the Director of Research and Public Affairs at The Inspire Institute, Aram Hosie said it’s about engaging a different audience.

Businesses, he said, understand the human cost of depression, but not that there is a real economic cost as well. He hopes the release of the report will get more businesses involved in support and treatment of depression, if only within their staff.

“While one in four people aged 12-25 experience a mental health difficulty, only 13 per cent of young men will seek help,” Hosie said. “Young men have extremely high rates of suicide compared to young women; in fact it’s the leading cause of death for young men.”

Help-seeking has never been a typical trait of the archetypal Australian male. Mr Hosie said these expectations are part of the problem.

“For young men in particular, their sense of self comes from being really independent and not admitting that they’re having problems because that’s seen as weakness. So it can be really hard for young guys to access the services currently available because they’re all about admitting that you have a problem.

“Our system, at the moment, doesn’t really work in terms of the way young men see themselves and how they go about getting themselves help.”

Rising depression rates have even seen new forms of the disease surface. While a mid-life crisis is usually used to refer to middle-aged men buying motorbikes and getting tattoos, the burgeoning trend of the quarter-life crisis seems to be more sinister.

Laughed off and studied in almost equal measures, this issue is said to affect people in their mid-twenties and comes in the form of a near-existential crisis.

The Depression Alliance in the UK estimates that one third of twenty somethings feel depressed. Damian Barr is the author of the book called Get it Together: A Guide to Surviving Your Quarter-Life Crisis. He said growing numbers of 25-year-olds are experiencing pressures previously felt by those
in their mid-forties.

Associate Professor Evonne Miller is a social psychologist from the Queensland University of Technology. She said often students who have just graduated and are struggling to get a job in their field can really experience a quarter-life crisis of doubt.

Mr Barr agrees, “The truth is that our 20s are not, as they were for our parents, 10 years of tie-dye fun and quality ‘me’ time. Being twenty-something now is scary – fighting millions of other graduates for your first job, struggling to raise a mortgage deposit and finding time to juggle all your relationships.”


Vincent Van Gogh’s 1890 ‘A Sorrowing Old Man’

French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte wrote that depression comes from being ‘condemned to freedom’. This phrase initially seems an oxymoron but it expresses the conflict young people feel these days.

“In the ‘olden days’, it was very much regimented: you got a job, you worked in

it for 40 or 50 years, the end. Whereas now, our focus has changed: we’re more aware of the fact that we have choices,” said Profession Miller. “We can make them, we can change them but with those opportunities, comes challenges.”Critics have scoffed and called quarter-life crises everything from “spoilt-brat syndrome” to a first-world problem.

Professor Miller freely admits the latter is true. “It’s definitely a first world problem but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less real. If we were living in a third-world country, we wouldn’t have the chance to reflect on what makes us happy but, that said, we live in a first-world place and this is one of the challenges that we face.”

Why is this happening though? History tells us that depression has been with us for a while: Hippocrates thought it was due to a build-up of black bile in the body. The Journal of the American Medical Association disagrees with this particular hypothesis. However their explanations still range from a decrease in religious beliefs that buffer people against life’s setbacks, to the stresses of industrialisation. From unrealistic body image ideals for women (and men), to exposure to toxic substances.

There is research to support each hypothesis, but nothing concrete enough to support a single cause of the growing pandemic. While treatments and research seem to be keeping up with the growth of the disease, the origins and causes are as enigmatic as ever.

Is it possible that the price of modernity simply is melancholy?

Anyone experiencing any mental health problems should call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
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1 Comment

  1. Brittaney Mcquaig

    14/03/2013 at 12:43 pm

    Caregivers often have to deal with unpleasant tasks, it’s important that they are able to take it all in their stride, and have a good sense of humour to brighten up the patient. Along with a sense of humour they should also have an open-mind – they need to be tolerant of ideas and beliefs different to their own and be able to handle angry outbursts without being offended..

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