04/12/2014 08:17 GMT | Updated 02/02/2015 05:59 GMT

Failure to Tackle Depression Is Lack of Political Will

"The truth is, of course, it is not lack of medical knowledge that is at the heart of the world's collective failure to tackle depression. Our difficulties rest more on a lack of political resolve."

Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, speaking at the Global Depression Summit in London, England, Nov.25, 2014

Last week the Global Crisis of Depression Summit offered by the Economist took place at Kings Place in London. I was honoured to be among those asked to go to this invitation-only event. Among the notable speakers was Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General. His speech hit home for me, especially when he talked about depression in rich societies.

We know that stigma and discrimination prevent many people from asking for help. It's disturbing that even in well to do countries like the U.K. where there's a push to get people talking about depression, discrimination still silences many from asking for help. It's the fear of loosing your job, reputation, or family in a society where success is measured in how much you're worth or your perceived social status. Depression is a secret silent society in other ways too.

According to Kofi Annan, "Even in richer, more developed countries, help for those with depression can lag badly behind those suffering from many physical conditions." It can be tough getting medical help for depression. Sometimes the only way you can see a psychiatrist is by being admitted to the emergency department and by then your depression is usually severe. You're also at the end of your rope. Ask any mental health professional and they'll say early intervention works best.

Sadly, funding for depression research lags behind the other 'sexy' diseases. Okay, no disease is sexy but let's look at cancer. Today you can say the word cancer without stigma. You can shave your head bald after treatment and people won't shun you. Organizations host charity fundraisers with the financial and emotional support of millions of people. Companies and government agencies team up with researchers in innovative partnerships. Researchers are eager to repeat previous studies because of guaranteed funding and increased probability of getting published in journals.

On the other hand, politicians hesitate to fund depression research because it's a mental illness. The thought of explaining to a voter why depression is getting as much public money as cancer research is daunting. Religious and moral upbringings, cultural norms, and personal prejudices all come into play. What if people or opponents start spreading the rumour that you're supporting depression research because you have something in common with it? Cue the attack ads.

The challenge is getting politicians to show leadership and maximize the benefits for families, communities, and the country. We need to tackle depression with the same vigour and determination we have for balancing the economy or keeping immigrants out of the country. If politicians don't worry about their reputations when dealing with those controversial issues, why aren't they taking up the fight for an illness that affects millions of voters?

Terezia Farkas is a CNN ireporter, Huffington Post blogger, and columnist of 'Depression Help' for Beliefnet. She is involved with CDRIN (Canadian Depression Research and Intervention Network). She was invited to attend the Global Crisis of Depression Summit offered by The Economist at Kings Place in London on November 25, 2014.