Depression is often described as the “common cold” of mental illnesses and with 350 million people suffering from it, treatment regularly comes under the spotlight.
“More people are on antidepressants than ever before, but we are not seeing a decline in the number of people suffering from depression,” says Prof Michael Berk, chair of psychiatry at Deakin University in Australia. He spoke at the recent World Psychiatric Association’s international conference in Cape Town.
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“Clearly, therapy and medication are not the only answers, because we need to look at prevention.”
But can depression be prevented? Are there any interventions that would make people less prone to developing depression?
“Yes, there’s promising research,” answers Berk. “There are many steps people can take to actively prevent depression and other mental health problems. Ultimately this will not only improve the lives of individuals, but will also relive the financial burden of treating mental illness.”
The following are preventative measures:
According to Berk there’s a link between processed food and depression. Our bodies are not only not getting the nutrients, but it influences our brain chemistry and makes us prone to developing lifestyle diseases. “If it comes from a factory, it’s probably not good for you. If it comes from a farm, it’s likely to be good for you.”
There’s also a link between early childhood diet and developing mental health problems later in life. “It seems those first few years are formative.”
Researchers also suggest eating a Mediterranean diet with reasonable amounts of coffee and wine. All of these have been proven to be buffers against depression.
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2. Social inequality
Research shows that in countries where the gap between rich and poor is small, people are happier in general. “In the USA incomes have risen in real terms, but people are not happier,” says Berk. “When you see your neighbour living a good life, it’s difficult to be happy with what you have.”
There is also an interaction between expectations and the willingness to achieve them. “People are expecting to instantaneously achieve their goals and reach the level of the richest people.”
Narcissism is the tendency to overtly focus on yourself and your needs and issues. The phenomenon is on the rise and according to Berk people’s perception that the world revolves around them, can contribute to depression.
“The average person believes he or she has above-average skills and therefore above-average expectations,” says Berk. “This inevitably leads to disappointment, which in return can have an effect on depression.”
4. Quality of interactions
Our communities are denser than ever, but our interaction with one another is less than ever before. “We tend to stay home more and form fewer bonds with other people. This isolation can trigger mental problems.”
Most of us know that exercise releases serotonin (the feel-good hormone), and it is often used to treat depression, but it can also prevent mental illness. “Research shows that people who exercise are happier, especially if they take part in activities they enjoy.”
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