Facing the facts of depression in Slovakia

The World Health Organisation says depression is number four in the list of the world's major diseases in terms of time suffered. And the problem is multiplying. By the year 2020, depression is expected to be the 2nd most common health complaint in all ages and both sexes.

In early January, I posted an article about depression on my Slovak weblog. I wrote that in Slovakia you often hear young people claiming that they are depressed every time they are in a bit of a bad mood. It has almost become a new way of being "cool". In reality they don't have any symptoms of depression. If only they knew what a serious illness depression can be, they wouldn't joke about it.

"We should clearly differentiate between the sad moods that all of us have more or less frequently, and real depression, which is a chemical imbalance at the level of neurotransmitters in the human brain. A depressed person loses interest in everything, feels unworthy, guilty, can't sleep, loses appetite and has suicidal thoughts. It simply incapacitates people. In Slovakia people over forty are the most exposed to depression and the problem is that they often do not want to admit it and do not seek medical help. Slovak society is patriarchal and conservative, therefore adults, especially men, are afraid of losing their social status if others find out about their depression," says psychologist Elena Tedlova.

There are no accurate data on how many people are affected by depression in Slovakia, simply because somebody is registered in statistics only if she or he goes to a doctor or psychologist. The numerous sufferers who do not seek medical help do not figure in the statistics. The World Health Organisation conducted a survey in 2003 and concluded that 18 percent of Slovaks have been depressed for more than six months. Some of those who reacted to my blog tried to prove that depression is not a real problem in Slovakia. Others simply informed me that Slovaks are depressive as a nation.

"Maybe there are some depressed people but we are not like the Americans who spend all day with a shrink."

"Politicians are so depressing and corrupt and ordinary people have become so apathetic. Everybody lives in her or his own box and doesn't care about the outside world. We live in a closed society full of envy."

"Come on, how can you say Slovaks are depressed? Look around, people have good jobs, have children, and go on holiday abroad. They don't look depressed at all."

Professor Imrich Ruisel from the Slovak Academy of Sciences has spent many years studying how satisfied Slovaks are with their life:

"Yes, many people lead better lives from the financial point of view but you know the old saying: 'Money doesn't buy you happiness'. People need affection too and they can fall into depression very quickly if they can't satisfy their needs. Currently in Slovakia a better paid job means longer, stressful hours in the office and less time for family and friends. Loneliness has become a hidden problem in this country and generally it is one of the leading causes of depression."

Additionally Slovaks have started to feel the pressure of consumerism as psychologist Elena Tedlova explains:

"Take a look at the covers of magazines for women and men or watch the TV channels offering reality shows and you realize that they try to promote a certain type of successful person. Some people realize that it is simply marketing but there are some, especially youngsters, who feel under pressure to be like those featured by the media and set unrealistic goals for themselves. Some end feeling unworthy and depressed."

And talking about marketing and consumerism, they also influence the treatment of depression. Pharmaceutical companies have built up a powerful lobby in favour of prescribing drugs. They are relatively cheap and therefore favoured by health insurers. Psychologist Petra Wagnerova says that sometimes drugs prescriptions are used to cover the lack of therapists in Slovakia:

"You see in Slovakia we have our own way to cope with the hardships of life. We drink a shot of home made brandy called Borovicka. It is the best psychologist in the world. But please don't start to ask me about alcoholism now," says professor Ruisel smiling.

In the end, there might be some truth in the lyrics of the song "Crazy" by Canadian singer Alanis Morisette: "We are never gonna survive unless we are a little crazy".