It’s World Health Day on April 7th. The focus this year is on depression, and I couldn’t be happier. Let’s talk about why.

World Health Day, celebrated every April 7th since 1950, creates a unique opportunity to shine the spotlight on a major global health concern. It purposely falls on the anniversary of the founding of the World Health Organization (WHO), and marks a day dedicated to wide scale health promotion and taking committed action.

The theme of this year’s World Health Day campaign is depression, and I’ve been celebrating ever since I heard the news. Why does it make me happy?

Because more than 300 million people around the globe are currently living with depression.

Because prevalence of depression rose more than 18% in the last decade.

Because depression is now the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide.

Because this Friday it becomes a global priority.

World Health Day 2017 presents an opportunity to raise awareness of a serious issue that causes worldwide suffering, while simultaneously sparking a global conversation about how to better address the need. This day marks the beginning of a long-term commitment towards creating a mentally healthier world in the future. And I believe that’s a reason for us all to smile.

Depression and anxiety are common mental disorders causing plenty of suffering in today’s world; affecting relationships, careers, and even physical health. We know that the mind and the body are inextricably linked, and research on the brain and the body connection shows that mental health issues are linked not only to suicide and substance abuse, but to numerous physical health problems such as heart disease, respiratory disease, and other chronic conditions. Mental health issues can also significantly impact life expectancy with people experiencing major mental illness dying 14 to 32 years earlier than those in the general population. As the prevalence rates rise, the impact upon self and society increases, more lives are touched and it affects us all.

Mental health — it’s everybody’s issue.

Unlike a physical ailment or illness, many people still do not seek appropriate supports when mental illness arises. In high income countries, up to 50% of people with mental disorders do not access services. This figure sores to a jaw dropping 80–90% in developing countries. These issues are disabling and debilitating, yet respond well to a range of treatments that are safe and effective. It’s both staggering and heartbreaking to think how many people are suffering unnecessarily this very moment.

Why? … There are many contributing factors, but here’s the top two:

/1/ Fear.

The biggest contributing factor is stigma — stemming from negative attitudes and misinformation — leaving many suffering in silence. Millions of people don’t seek support for fear of experiencing shame, disgrace or dishonour. They are worried about the prospect of discrimination — becoming marginalised by family, work or society.

/2/ Funding.

Lack of funding contributes to illnesses not being treated adequately. Mental disorders account for 30% of all global disability burden, yet on average, only 3% of global investment in health is allocated to mental health. In some countries, it’s as low as 1%. The lack of resources means provisions and professional help is in extremely limited supply. In some developing countries such as sub-Saharan Africa, there is one psychiatrist per 1,000,000 people. Yes, one per one million people.

I’ve worked in acute mental health hospitals, emergency respite care, community mental health services and health promotion, with government and NGO’s, as part of multi-disciplinary teams, in both the UK and Australia. I’ve seen many people rise out of depression, effectively treat their anxiety and recover from mental health issues, leading fruitful lives within the community.

I’ve also seen (and experienced first hand) the anguish, devastation and destruction that can form in the wake of mental illness. Unfortunately, as a health professional I was constantly exposed to the detrimental impact of stigma and labels, and experienced just how fragmented, under-resourced, out-dated, ineffective and reactive the health system can be. Oftentimes the mental health system is perpetuating the very issues it seeks to resolve.

The rising tide of struggling, unhappy minds indicates there’s a significant public health issue to be addressed. Focussing on the past, hurling blame and finger pointing isn’t solving anything. Yet the status quo just isn’t good enough. Making great progress requires co-creating smarter solutions to deal with the big issues more effectively.

This health crisis can’t be entirely “fixed” or “solved”, but the future doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom either.

I want to share three simple steps we can all take to address the issues facing us. I am positive that collectively, we can create big impact by choosing wisely, being proactive and getting smarter. Here’s how:

Choose wisely: In order to break down the stigma surrounding mental ill health, it’s important to become aware of what’s driving it. … FEAR. Take that away and the stigma is immediately powerless. The negative stigma is driven by the automatic fear that what’s coming next is likely to be dangerous, painful, or harmful. We’re afraid — so we avoid. It’s time to break through the taboo and start talking about and acting on matters of the mind. Use your awareness to notice when fear is driving the way you think, feel and act. Then you get to choose whether that’s helpful, or not. (Hint: it’s usually not).

Once you notice the presence of fear, you can disarm this default mode in seconds by responding with something more functional, more fundamental, more human.

… Compassion.

Fear shuts us off, closes us down and turns us away. Love opens us up, empowers us and brings us closer together. If you’re labelling yourself (or someone else) as weak, useless, hopeless, broken, worthless, if you’re not being kind to yourself (e.g. speaking up or seeking help), if you’re turning someone away based on their state of mind, if you’re too scared to reach out and offer support, simply tune in and ask yourself “is this the kindest thing I can do in this moment?”. Are you perpetuating the stigma, the fear, the isolation, or are you choosing kindness and compassion instead? Catching the instances where you’re acting — or rather, reacting — out of fear, and choosing to respond quite the opposite, is a profound and powerful shift to make.

In my own life I’ve seen this loop play out time and time again. The suffering I’ve experienced has always stemmed directly from fear. The insecurity and worries I battled with simply weren’t real, I’d created them because I was scared and felt threatened. Becoming mindful of this pattern, as soon as noticed what was happening, I chose to change the narrative to a more loving and compassionate one. Freedom followed. The story was almost immediately re-written and I continually reclaimed my power in all kinds of situations. Every time I tapped into my capacity to love — via the wonders of neuroplasticity — I was actually re-wiring my brain to become more compassionate. Now that’s my default mode instead. Try it out for yourself.

Adopting this simple switch will help you to navigate the path of depression for yourself, or walk it with others, in a more compassionate and supportive way. All whilst stopping stigma in it’s shame-filled tracks.

Be proactive: If you want to be in peak physical health — you’ll accept that you need to do the work. You make time to go for a run, join a gym, eat healthily, get a workout buddy — whatever it takes. What if you were to adopt this approach to your mental health, too? Just as you choose to invest time and effort to stay physically healthy, it’s essential that same proactive approach is applied to maintaining your mental health too. It’s all your health, after all.

Being proactive in looking after your mental health will have a significant impact on how you feel and function in daily life. Although you can’t see your state of mind, you can tune in and rate how you’re travelling day to day. Whether you’re struggling or feeling fine, giving regular attention to your state of mind means you’ll become more and more self-aware, understanding the early warning signs (giving you a chance to do something about it) or gain insight into what works well and helps you to feel at your absolute best. Building your psychological resources stands you in good stead to mentally flourish. Training (and rewiring) your brain to cultivate a healthier state of mind is possible. But it’s up to you to do the work.

Beyond the magic of actually changing your brain, science shows that taking time to fine-tune your mental wellbeing will rapidly infiltrate many dimensions of your life for the better.

If you are chasing success, here’s the secret path. Elevated wellbeing is associated with more happiness, creativity, productivity, better relationships, improved immunity, increased physical health, higher income and even longer life expectancy … You’d be crazy not to, right?

There are many different ways to invest in your mental wellbeing, backed by science and proven to work. Whether that’s working on your relationships, helping others, expressing gratitude, setting goals, increasing your positive emotions, consuming a nourishing diet, living more mindfully, working on your strengths or giving back; the scientific field of positive psychology is focussed on discovering and promoting simple, sustainable, science-backed ways to integrate goodness for your mind into your life in order to achieve a greater sense of wellbeing.

As well as benefitting individuals, a proactive approach boosts the wellbeing of the economy too.

Every US$1 invested in enhancing treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of US$4 in better health and ability to work. Businesses in Australia have demonstrated that for every $1 invested in making the workplace mentally healthy, an average return on investment of $2.30 was gained.

A recent PriceWaterhouseCooper Report demonstrated untreated mental health conditions are costing Australian employers $10.9 billion annually through absenteeism, reduced productivity and compensation claims. So whether you’re an individual or an organisation, the take-home message here is clear. Be proactive — it’s a good investment to make. Whereas failure to act is proving costly.

Get smart. Technology plays an important role in our everyday lives and it’s presence is only ever increasing. For example, by 2020, there will be an estimated 6.1B smartphone users globally.

While some are quick to blame smartphones for the rise in depression, anxiety (and other physical health issues), I maintain it’s not the tool, it’s how we use it that matters. I agree that constant self-comparison on social media can be detrimental to a user’s mental health, over-stimulation can reduce attention span to that of a goldfish, and virtual connection is not as rewarding an experience as the real thing. But that’s only one side of the story.

Smartphone technology can also be used successfully to support your mental health — and even the wellbeing of those around you, too. Filling your social feeds with content that educates and uplifts you, committing to a daily practice of guided mindfulness meditation, reaching out to message an isolated family member, training your brain with short teaser games, using an app to keep you focussed on your goals, overcoming physical distances to connect via video call, accessing forums and support groups filled with likeminded individuals, anywhere, anytime, and knowing all of this support is only ever a click away. It’s an incredible gateway for good.

Smartphones have the capacity to be used for the greater good, and it’s important to leverage that to our advantage.

With mental health resources proving scarce and underfunded; smart, sustainable and cost-effective solutions to maintain mind health and treat issues are necessary. Exploring smarter treatment options offers a means to prevent or alleviate depression and other mental health issues for millions by making solutions far more accessible, affordable and scaleable than at present. The cost-benefit ratio makes it a no-brainer to use technology more widely to reduce risk factors and compliment in-person support with the right checks and balances in place. It’s certainly time to get smarter and more selective about how we use the resources at our fingertips.

Depression has reached a global tipping point that’s finally pushed it into the limelight. I struggle to accept that we live in an age of unprecedented mental illness — yet I am happy that this has finally become a priority health area to be acknowledged and actioned more effectively. It fills me with hope for a brighter future.

Depression affects people of all ages, from all walks of life, all over the world. Collectively, we each have a part to play in making progress and creating healing. Choose wisely to respond to everyday situations in ways that strengthen, not separate us. Take responsibility for yourself, get to know yourself, and commit to taking responsible action regularly. And use the resources you already have access to, to your advantage.

There are many challenges in this realm, but I feel a deep sense of joy that this week and beyond — significant steps are being taken to ensure our mental health will finally get the attention and support it deserves.

Before you go…

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Hi I’m Annika Rose, I dig digital wellbeing and all things mindfulness. I empower others to thrive — find out how I do it and who I’ve worked with by heading over to my website. While you’re there, subscribe to join The Wellbeing Collective.

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