Thursday, May 17, 2012

Depression in Australia

Recently, the Canberra Times published an article by Julieanne Strachan describing the increasing burden of depression in Australian society. For instance, Australian taxpayers spent over $333 million subsidising antidepressant medication in 2011. The use of antidepressants has increased substantially since 2007, with 13.6 million scripts written by doctors in 2010-2011. In the ACT, doctors issued 169,228 new scripts for antidepressants in 2010-2011, equating to 0.46 scripts per person (keeping in mind that one person can receive multiple scripts). From these figures, it is clear that depression represents a significant mental health issue in our community.

Antidepressants come in many different forms, though generally speaking they work by changing the level of neurotransmitters such as serotonin in the brain. While clinical studies have indicated that many antidepressants can be quite effective at reducing the symptoms of depression in the short term, it is important to consider that the same neurotransmitters have multiple effects on brain functioning, meaning that side effects can occur frequently. Furthermore, most antidepressants only have an effect while they are being taken. As such, it is worth considering additional means of addressing depression, such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) and other forms of psychological treatments. Approaches such as these help us to develop better coping and problem-solving skills and can help to improve our mental health in the long term.

According to the article, this increase in antidepressant use is largely due to increasing stress and pressure at work. Clinical psychologist Darryl Cross argued that people are being required to take on a greater amount of responsibilities at work as businesses and government departments are required to operate with fewer personnel. As health consumers, we need to recognise the impact that stress at work can have on our health and find ways to either reduce the levels of stress we experience or cope with them more effectively. This applies to our overall physical health as well as our mental well-being.
In the past, females were considered to suffer from depression and anxiety to a much greater extent than men, for reasons such as their tendency towards greater emotionality and stress. However, while women are often encouraged to express their emotions, men are encouraged to ‘toughen up’ and move on. As a result, it is likely that many men suffering from depression would not seek help, often turning to alcohol and other drugs as a means of self-medication. It is also thought that men tend to focus more on the physical symptoms of depression, making it unlikely that they will attribute their problems to an underlying mental illness. Fortunately, programs such as Mensheds and MensLine have promoted a greater awareness of this problem while providing nonjudgmental support networks to help men improve their mental wellbeing.

The article listed the “decline of the traditional family unit” as one of the causes of increasing depression rates in the younger generations. However, the factors influencing the support children receive are likely to be far more complex than their basic family structure. Children can experience loving and supportive relationships from a variety of different family members in different situations. Children can also receive support from many sources outside of the home. Darryl Cross suggested that a decline in attendance at religious institutions has also reduced the support that children receive from their community. If this is the case, it will be important that efforts are made to provide children with adequate support from other institutions, such as schools and community groups.

Another area of concern for younger generations has been increasing internet access, which the article suggested may expose children to ‘adult issues’ a lot earlier in life than previously. Indeed, we now have access to more information than ever before, and can form broader social networks that stretch across the globe. Online social media also means that these networks are being created with fewer parental controls, which may be seen as potentially dangerous. However, the internet can also provide an alternative support for consumers concerned about mental health issues. Organisations and services such as Beyond Blue, Lifeline, Headspace and MensLine are able to use websites to  provide consumers with access to information about particular mental health issues, offer basic advice and provide links to various support networks and counselling. This approach is often a less daunting option for consumers, as it enables us to explore our options anonymously from the safety of our own home.

Nicole Moyle
Research Assistant

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