Currently, there are about 2 million people suffering from depression in Taiwan, and 97 percent of them don’t reach out for help.

Depression is a transparent illness – patients themselves often don’t even realize that they have depression. Because of a lack of education and resources, most people who suffer from depression know that there is something wrong with them, but can’t quite pinpoint exactly what it is.

Minor depression becomes major depression because we don’t talk about it; major depression becomes a suicide because we don’t talk about it.

Personally, it took me six years to figure out that I was depressed. Depression is tricky – it is often stigmatized as “complaining" in upper-middle class women, but the incidence of depression is approximately equal regardless of financial circumstances. It is simply easier for upper-middle class women to detect that they are unhappy when their worlds seem perfect.

Depression is not just a feeling, but an illness – it is a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how one functions. The symptoms of depression, as detailed in the book "Undoing Depression" by Richard O'Connor, include:

  • Feeling sad or having a depressed mood for at least two weeks
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Changes in appetite
  • Weight loss or gain unrelated to diet
  • Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Loss of energy or increased fatigue
  • Increase in purposeless physical or slowed movements and speech
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Depression can strike at any time, but often first appears during the late teens to mid-20s, but people are getting depressed at a younger age. Women are more likely than men to experience depression.

Having depression is just like a soldier being shot on a battlefield. You shouldn’t blame the soldier for being shot, and getting shot could happen to any soldier. Depression is not something you can just snap out of. We would never blame someone who has cancer for having cancer, so why tell mental health patients they should “think” their way out?

Taiwan's limited support network

The support for mental health is unfortunately very limited in Taiwan. Treatment for depression is poorly or not at all covered by health insurance. The most ludicrous of all is that the government's mental health department is combined with the dental department.

The system is broken – people who suffer from depression cannot go to work, therefore they have no income, and when treatments come at such a high price, how can they seek help? What’s more, in the entire country, there is only one mental health support group specifically aimed at women, called WARM (Women Anonymous Reconnecting Mentally), and there isn’t yet a mental health support group for men. WARM is a safe place for women to discuss anything that disturbs their mental health. Generally speaking, in Taiwan, a therapy session is 50 minutes a week and a doctor’s visit takes about 10-20 minutes. But once we leave the clinics, we are all on our own again. WARM is trying to break that cycle and create a community that offers support 24/7.

Topics which were previously considered “unspeakable” or “weak”, or something to “be ashamed of” for women are now being spoken and discussed in WARM, including sensitive topics such as rape, abortion, body image and abuse.

A lack of awareness

I once did a social experiment where I interviewed students at NTU, asking:

  • Do you know what depression is?
  • Do you know anyone who has depression?
  • If you or your loved ones are depressed, do you know what to do?

The results were extreme – almost all Taiwanese students had a “don’t know, don’t care” attitude, while all non-Taiwanese were passionate about the issue and wanted to get involved. I had to tell Taiwanese students that mental health is equivalent to physical health, yet I don’t have to do the same with foreign students. This is a very upsetting result.

Since 2003 to 2016, every year about 3,000-4,000 people commit suicide in Taiwan. When I was in college, a friend of mine took his own life, it wasn’t until later on that we learned he had depression. It was tragic that his illness was neglected.

However, the way people reacted was to leave out the word “depression,” whenever they mentioned him, they would say he was “under a lot of pressure” and “selfish.” This is a typical stigma when it comes to depression and suicide. Minor depression becomes major depression because we don’t talk about it; major depression becomes suicide because we don’t talk about it.

We don’t see people marching on the streets about depression, raising awareness like people do when it comes to cancer, human rights, or poverty. A human right is a right that is believed to belong to every person, so shouldn't equal treatment for mental health be a human right?

How many more lives do we need to sacrifice before knowing it is time for a change? How many more people have to suffer alone in the dark without any support? How many lives are we willing to lose, just because we won’t be the ones that start talking about it, start changing?

Today, give a friendly smile to a stranger, tell your friends how much you love them, ask someone how they are doing – but actually mean it when you ask them. All these little gestures can make a difference. Let’s start today to actually care about the mentality of those around you, and let’s be brave enough to talk about what is not right in our lives and in this society. This is where change begins, today, with you.

Resources for depression:

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TNL Editor: Morley J Weston