Depression is getting worse in stressed-out Asia

Rising cases highlight the need to address mental illness and not ignore it as has been the norm

Jun 03, 2022

Depression has become more prevalent since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, seriously affecting 86 million people in Southeast Asia. (Photo: Unsplash)


By Jose Mario Bautista Maximiano

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, one out of four South Korean teenagers suffered from depression due to academic pressure and stress. 

It was worse in Hong Kong, where educators and parents were alarmed due to a sharp increase in suicides among young people — 22 primary and secondary students committed suicide in the 2015-16 academic year “with four such deaths taking place in the space of just five days,” according to the South China Morning Post.

Depression does not discriminate. Even the Filipino entertainer Sarah Geronimo had a breakdown during a 2018 Las Vegas concert tour.

Teary, she confessed in public that she felt painful “emptiness” even after creating an almost perfect image, so perfect that she became the envy of other top performers like her. She said she couldn’t understand why she still felt “unhappy” in spite of being idolized by millions.

Japanese actors Haruma Miura at 30 and Takeuchi Yuko at 40 hanged themselves due to depression. Taiwanese singer and actor Alien Huang, Japanese actor Sei Ashina and Korean actor Oh In-hye, three well-known Asian celebrities, were dead at 36 after committing suicide in 2020.

It looks like a rich and famous lifestyle is not a reliable barometer of true happiness. Today Asian youths chase after fame and fortune, thinking that they will bring a lifetime of delight and fulfillment. But they don’t. Money seems incapable of buying us happiness and stardom seems powerless to guarantee serenity.

In 2009, Korean actress Park Jin-hee wrote a thesis about 260 actors she interviewed, 40 percent of whom had thought of dying “because it’s too tiring to live.” 

Incomprehensible to us, life is way too tough for some of the rich and the famous. Stars shine, oh yes, and they know how to enjoy the perks of stardom but, bearing more pressure than us, some celebrities are hurting.

Depression, if ignored, leads to very serious forms of mental illness and this may lead to death or self-inflicted suffering.

Depression became more prevalent and widespread during and after the pandemic, seriously affecting 86 million people in Southeast Asia alone.

Because mental illness is sort of taboo in many Asian communities, the tendency is to conceal any manifestations of depression.

Depressed Asians, in general, keep that sense of anxiety and hopelessness to themselves for fear that any confession of mental health problems is socially demeaning.

At the end of 2020, Southeast Asian countries reported the highest prevalence of common mental disorders, especially among the young, indicating burdensome psycho-emotional tendencies during lockdowns, socio-physical distancing and isolation. 

In a talk on new evangelization, Hanoi-based Father Paul Nguyen Trung Thien acknowledged the devastating consequences of the pandemic on countless Vietnamese people: poverty, depression and insensitivity to others’ feelings.

Because depression perturbs both the body and the soul, the remedy of firing up neurons into synapses or balancing all chemicals in the brain is not enough. Nothing is enough to fill what is lacking, so does the human heart crave for something more, say, of a spiritual kind?

“People experiencing depression often find a range of evidence-based coping mechanisms useful,” according to Dr. Poonam Khetrapal Singh, regional director of the World Health Organization in Southeast Asia. “From talking to someone they trust to exercising regularly or staying connected with loved ones.”

On my part, I strongly recommend the following interrelated solutions.

First is personal help. “Depression is like wearing tinted glasses,” writes Stephen Altrogge. “Everywhere you look, things look dark. Bleak. Black. Hopeless. Helpless. Borrowing the scary words of Dante Alighieri when he reached the gates of Hell, the waiting room for depression says, ‘Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.’”

When the mind and body are in pain, the soul is pulled downward, not sideways, “like a heavy weight tied around the ankle.” You have to fight back. Surviving death-seeking attempts due to melancholy, Filipina actress Peachy Rallonza Bretaña finally made up her mind and said: “I choose to fight. I choose not to be afraid. And today I choose life.”

The second is family help. Another Filipina actress Nadine Lustre talked about the “family who will always be my strength. Friends who will always pull me up.”

Her brother committed suicide. Later she admitted: “If I had talked to him more or if he had opened up to me, in a way I could have changed what happened.” Lustre said that one of the most important lessons she learned was to make her loved ones feel appreciated every single day.

The third is professional help. J.K. Rowling, famous author of the best-selling Harry Potter series, suffered from major depression before she became an author.

When she was a newly divorced mother in her twenties, Rowling suffered the two-edged sword of downheartedness, namely, that she dreaded her infant child would die as she seriously entertained suicidal thoughts. After reading through Rowling’s file, her doctor called her in right away and recommended cognitive behavioral therapy. You see, seeking professional help is not a weakness. It is brave.

After seeking professional help to overcome postpartum depression, Brooke Shields learned one thing — to cry all you want — and turned her diary into a book Down Came the Rain.

Last but not least is spiritual help. Human emptiness is not completely satisfied by medication, guidance counseling, best friend care or physical exercise. This is when God comes into one’s anxious life.

God comes in because he is the one who placed that burning yen in the deepest chamber of the human heart and God is the only one who can satisfy it.

From addiction to prison to finding God, as Hollywood celebrity Mark Walberg has beautifully put it: “The first thing I do is to give thanks to God.” It didn’t escape his mind that truly we are finite creatures-of-this-material-world and the spiritual soul in us is relentlessly seeking for the ultimate happiness.

I conclude with the famous words of St. Augustine (354-430): “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

* Jose Mario Bautista Maximiano is the author of ‘Human Life is Beautiful’ (St. Paul’s, 1993) and ‘Spiritual Man: Christian Anthropology’ (St. Paul’s, 1995). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.-- UCA News

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