Wei-Jen Chua-Yankelevich

Arts & Sciences: DBBS, Immunology | PhD


Cohort 2006


Graduated 2012

Partner University:

National Taiwan University


Career | Academic Career Coach | East Lansing, Michigan, USA

Scholar Highlights

Depression: Not just in someone’s head

A couple years ago, I was awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from my friend. He told me that he could not stop wanting to put a gun to his head. I called 911 immediately. When I arrived at his house, he was safe and in an ambulance, being cared for by an emergency medical team. I was so relieved that he did not pull the trigger. When I hugged him, he whispered, “I think I am very sick. I need help.”

My friend had been suffering from depression. His onset came in his early 20s, but he did not recognize it as a major mental health problem. Depression is one of the leading causes of disability in the world today according to the statistics of the World Health Organization (WHO). At its worst, it leads to suicide with the loss of about 850,000 thousand lives every year. WHO has recognized depression as a global health problem and the fourth leading contributor to the global burden of disease. In 2007, WHO reported that people who had depression along with other chronic diseases like asthma or diabetes had much lower health scores compared with people with a chronic disease only.

Social stigma and lack of understanding have been tremendous barriers to effective medical treatment for patients with depression. My friend followed his doctor’s instruction and took medical leave to receive treatment. Unfortunately, his colleagues could not understand the situation, instead insisting that his problem was just in his head and depression was his excuse for avoiding work and social responsibilities. These are very wrong and dangerous ideas about depression. What they fail to understand is that depression is a common disease like cancer or an infection.

Depression is a medical disorder that can occur in people of all genders, ages, and social backgrounds. Modern medical research has shown that depression is associated with genetic predisposition, chemical imbalances in the brain, chronic diseases, trauma, and social-economic change. It is a disease that can be reliably diagnosed and treated in primary medical care.

With antidepressant medications and counseling, sixty to eighty percent of patients are capable of coping with the disease and professional and personal life stresses. However, to date, no more than twenty five percent of patients (in some countries even fewer than ten percent) receive proper medical treatment. Untreated depression is not only a threat to an individual’s health or life but also a loss to a nation’s economic productivity.

After living in the U.S. for study for three years, I have not lost the capacity to be stunned whenever there is gunfire on a campus or at a shopping center. I have been even more struck, however, by the fact that the suicide rate among 45-to-54-year-olds increased nearly 20 percent from 1999 to 2004 according to the latest study released by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. I have put this together and begun to wonder whether depression can be one of the causes of these episodes of gun violence. In addition, I also wonder if social stigma, misunderstanding, and lack of proper medical treatment can be equivalent to bullets that take away people’s health and life. Everyone needs to recognize depression as a serious global health problem, and we all need to take on preventing suicide and improving human mental health as our task. There’s a lot more we can do like increasing awareness of depression in the general public, helping depressed people reach proper medical treatment, improving the health care system, and supporting basic and clinical research to better understand the biochemistry and physiology of depression. Last but not least, everyone should take the time and effort to live a good physical and mental health. Depression is a common disease, and we all need to turn to medical help when concerned about the mental health of our family, friends and ourselves.

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