Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Angst-ridden Down Under

Australia is the second-most antidepressant prescribed nation in the world. Philip Lynch asks why?

89 out of every thousand Australians are on antidepressants, according to a recent OECD report.

Mon, Dec 2, 2013, 00:00


Philip Lynch

According to a just released OECD report, a staggering 89 out of every thousand Australians are on antidepressants, almost double the number from a decade ago. This report shows Australia is second only to Iceland as the most antidepressant prescribed nation in the developed world. Icelanders can perhaps point to their cold climate as one contributing factor to their discontent but that’s hardly something we can seize upon in our defence here in Australia.

Economically we’re doing okay. Unlike Iceland, our major banks weathered the recent global financial crisis with barely a blip on their collective balance sheets. House prices are continuing on their steady upward trend. No ghost estates exist anywhere in Australia. We don’t have to witness the annual involuntary exit of many of our best and brightest graduates. There’s no need for any plans for a Gathering. Gabriel Byrne can relax. Unemployment sits at a modest 5.5 per cent. And for well over a decade now, our mining sector has been going gang busters thanks to China’s insatiable demand for our minerals, chiefly iron ore. Although demand is slowing, there is still a strong demand for labour in our mines, as many job-seeking Irish would be aware.

This high number of depressed Australians is surprising, given our much envied climate, pristine beaches, our outdoor living and our propensity to excel, for the most part, in sport on the international stage. As I write this, our cricketers are enjoying a welcome return to form in the Ashes against our traditional rivals, the Poms. The Wallabies still haven’t got the measure of the All Blacks but we are always competitive with our trans-Tasman neighbours. Our Socceroos aren’t expected to get very far in Brazil and they will likely be home before the proverbial postcards but at least we have qualified which is no mean feat in a country where long established trifecta of cricket, rugby and Aussie Rules football prevail. There may be some truth in the stereotype of us as a laid-back laconic, sports-loving, beer-swilling nation, but there’s no escaping the harsh reality that many of us just don’t feel too good about ourselves.

And yet, paradoxically and justifiably, Australia is a much sought-after destination for backpackers, as well as thousands of asylum seekers who risk everything to reach our shores in search of a better life. Hardly a week passes without another boatload of desperate people being intercepted off the coast of Australia. The recently elected conservative Australian government has maintained the previous government’s hard-line policy of offshore processing centres to deter would-be asylum seekers, but the boats keep arriving.

Australia has never been a particularly religious nation. If anything, most of us harbour a thinly veiled scepticism about most denominations. So perhaps it’s not surprising that many of us are turning in increasing numbers to medicine and specifically psychology to help with our mental health problems. Health experts here are baffled by the surge in antidepressant prescriptions. Some are citing over-worked GPs with insufficient consultation times, too readily reaching for their prescription pads instead of recommending psychotherapy. Yet others “blame” the undue influence of pharmaceutical companies who aggressively market their products. But whatever the reason, there appears to be a certain kind of malaise or disillusionment among many Australians that defies any neat explanation. Others attribute people’s recognition of their depression and motivation to seek help as a sign of the easing of social stigma of mental illness.

At the end of the day, it seems many Australians want more than sand and surf and sunshine. A beer or two and a barbeque of course are no panacea for depression. Nor can the lauding of our sporting stars’ heroics suffice. Who knows, perhaps this quest Down Under for an improvement in one’s mental wellbeing is a good start. And for now, all those antidepressant prescriptions will continue to be filled at pharmacies across this vast sunburnt land. There are no indications this trend is likely to be reversed any time soon.

Philip Lynch lives in Tasmania and is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read previous pieces by him on how different his life would be if he hadn’t emigrated,visiting Belfast after a long time away, his relationship with his ageing parents, about his dwindling connection to Ireland, his memory of the day he left Ireland in 1983..