Mental health is often considered a ‘sik blong ol waet man’ (white man’s sickness) in Vanuatu. The stigma surrounding mental health is so strong that people will often try finding salvation in church or visiting a cleaver before seeking help from a medical professional. Most people don’t even bother and will suffer silently instead. Often people don’t even realize there are resources available to assist them.

It has only been in the past couple of years that awareness about mental health has started making serious progress in Vanuatu. Since the MindCare Unit was established in 2014, the small, specialized team has been fighting the stigma against mental illness through advocacy, awareness and promotion of mental health despite limited resources and budget.

Depression is this year’s theme for World Health Day on April 7th and the MindCare Unit have scheduled a live radio talk back in Radio Vanuatu to discuss the issue in detail. Raising awareness about depression couldn’t have come at a better time.

In mid-March, a young boy in Pango, Efate took his own life. The surfing community held an event on March 24th where everyone was invited to wear fluoro clothing, which conveniently commemorated One Wave, an event that started four years ago in Sydney, Australia. The event uses surfing to create awareness about mental health and offers support to those that are suffering a chance to overcome their struggles in a supportive environment.

Unfortunately the prevention of suicide has not been adequately addressed in many countries. Only a few countries have included suicide prevention among their health priorities and only 28 countries report having a national suicide prevention strategy. Suicide is yet to be recognized as a major public health problem despite it being the second leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds.

It is considered taboo in many societies, including Vanuatu, to openly discuss it. Raising community awareness and breaking down the taboo is important to make progress in preventing suicide. It is essential for people, particularly young people, to know that ‘it’s okay to not be okay’ and to not be afraid to ask for help.


What is depression?

Depression is a common illness worldwide, with more than 300 million people affected. More women are affected than men. Depression is characterized by sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, tiredness, and poor concentration. Sufferers may also have multiple physical complaints with no apparent physical cause. Depression can be long-lasting or recurrent, substantially impairing people’s ability to function at work or school and to cope with daily life. At its most severe, depression can lead to suicide.

Who is likely to get depression?

Depression results from a complex interaction of social, psychological and biological factors. People who have gone through adverse life events (unemployment, bereavement, psychological trauma) are more likely to develop depression. Depression can, in turn, lead to more stress and dysfunction and worsen the affected person’s life situation and depression itself. There are also interrelationships between depression and physical health.

What are the treatments for depression?

Although there are known, effective treatments for depression, fewer than half of those affected in the world (in many countries, fewer than 10%) receive such treatments.

Barriers to effective care include a lack of resources, lack of trained health-care providers, and social stigma associated with mental disorders. Another barrier to effective care is inaccurate assessment.

Mild to moderate depression can be effectively treated with talking therapies and antidepressants can be an effective form of treatment for moderate to severe depression but are not the first line of treatment for cases of mild depression. Antidepressants are available for as little as 800vt a month but you need to be prescribed them by a doctor.

How can depression be self-managed?

Management of depression has to include identifying stress factors, such as financial problems, difficulties at work or physical or mental abuse, and sources of support, such as family members and friends. The maintenance or reactivation of social networks and social activities is important.

If you or anyone you know is suffering depression, please visit the MindCare Unit at Vila Central Hospital.

This article was originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Life and Style magazine.