Depressed? Do yoga, travel, eat fruits, says health ministry; Twitter, mental health experts slam 'tone-deaf' advice on depression

If the health ministry is to be believed, the clinical illness of depression, a disorder that affects 322 million worldwide – is not an illness at all.

Nitish Rampal June 28, 2018 14:57:35 IST
Depressed? Do yoga, travel, eat fruits, says health ministry; Twitter, mental health experts slam 'tone-deaf' advice on depression

'Eat fruits', 'go for a walk', 'think positive' and your depression be 'gone'. If the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is to be believed, the clinical illness of depression – a debilitating disorder that affects around 322 million people worldwide – is not an illness at all. And it is, perhaps, not 'serious enough' to warrant medical intervention.

The ministry waded into controversy when it tweeted a poster on Tuesday that listed some suggestions on how one can deal with depression, like travel, yoga and being creative – basically living the 'good life'. The tweet left several Twitter users and mental health professionals fuming as the poster clearly undermined the role of medical intervention and talk therapy for treating the condition.

"Depression is a disease which needs treatment and the government has turned it into some behavioural problem," Dr Vinay Kumar, honorary general secretary of the Indian Psychiatric Society, was quoted as saying by Scroll. "This message from the government is like telling a person with diabetes to walk and not take medicines." While some of the suggestions were at least in the ballpark of sound advice, like 'taking a walk' (endorphins released from exercise are said to help symptoms of depression), many of them were downright egregious. 

Confusing a symptom for a cause, the health ministry also suggests that following a routine can help. Another pearl of wisdom is the suggestion "to be creative". One can't help but wonder if the poster should have been a little less creative and a little more 'boring' – based on research and not a whim.

Going a step further, the ministry gave people with depression the paradoxical advice to 'think positive'.  

One of the critical symptoms of depression is lack of sleep or too much sleep. Therefore, getting the "eight hours of sleep" the health ministry suggests in the poster is the problem and not the solution.

"The poster is an example of wishful thinking," Kumar told Scroll. "How can you expect a person suffering from depression to start thinking positively?"

According to the WHO, although there are known, effective treatments for depression, fewer than half of those affected in the world (in many countries, fewer than 10 percent) receive such treatments. Barriers to effective care include a lack of resources, lack of trained health-care providers, and social stigma associated with mental disorders.

The dismissive attitude of the health ministry towards a serious ailment like depression reflects the institutional apathy prevalent in India when it comes to mental health and illnesses. Another aspect that becomes clear from the poster is that mental illness is still percieved to a class issue, an urban problem if you will.

In countries of all income levels like India, people who are depressed are often not correctly diagnosed, and others who do not have the disorder are too often misdiagnosed and prescribed antidepressants.

This can be gleaned from the minstry's advice to travel whenever one feels depressed.

Rates of depression have risen by more than 18 percent since 2005, but a lack of support for mental health combined with a common fear of stigma means many do not get the treatment they need to live healthy and productive lives. Which is why it is important to understand depression and break the stigma around it. And while efforts to get people talking about the disorder might be rooted in good intentions, misguidance to those coping with or helping those coping with the ailment is worse. To put things into perspective, India is one of the most depressed countries in the world. According to the WHO, close to 36 percent of India are likely to suffer from major depression at some point in their lives. In 2012, India accounted for the highest estimated number of suicides in the world.

To understand the common misconceptions and myths around depression in India, Firstpost had spoken to Prachi Akhavi, a clinical psychologist working with Ehsaas, a psychotherapy Clinic at Ambedkar University Delhi:

"In India, there are many myths around depression. Quite often, it is dismissed as 'just sadness'. This leads to a belief that it's a choice one has made and can be stepped out of without professional or even familial help," Akhavi said.

Read more about depression, its types and symptoms.

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