Cuba’s 2017 campaign poster

With a varied program of activities Cuba celebrates World Health Day every April 7; this year dedicated to tackling depression, a psychological illness which negatively impacts family, work and social relationships.

Experts define this illness as a mood disorder presenting a variety of symptoms. In the most extreme cases depression can lead to suicide, a social phenomenon which mainly affects young people between 15 and 29 years of age.

Nonetheless, it is possible to prevent and treat depression through early detection of symptoms which include; feelings of sadness, mental anguish, a loss of interest in or the inability to undertake day-to-day activities.

Other warning signs consist of decreased energy or fatigue; loss of appetite; the need to sleep more or less than the usual; anxiety; difficulty concentrating; feelings of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness; and thoughts of self-harm.

One of the most effective methods of treatment is talk therapy, which is why this year’s campaign is entitled: “Let’s talk about depression, take a step forward for life,” in order to promote interpersonal communication skills, and prevent, identify and deal with the illness.

Activities will also be focused on addressing stigmatization and publicizing information on how to receive safe and immediate help.

Meanwhile, this year’s main event will be held in Cuba’s western province of Matanzas, and take the form of an arts festival with the participation of community theater group El Mirón Cubano; mariachi band Los Coyotes; neighborhood arts projects Ama, Corcel de esperanza, Maravillas de la infancia and Alma flamenca; as well as members of older adults’ interest circles and community centers.

In addition to panel discussions, film screenings, promotional activities, concerts, photographic expositions, and other initiatives; since March Cuban television and radio have been broadcasting relevant information in the lead up to April 7, also the date on which the World Health Organization (WHO) was founded in 1948.

Speaking to the press in Havana, Cristian Morales Fuhriman, representative of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in Cuba, noted that in Latin America depression affects an estimated 16% of the 300,000,000 people who suffer from the illness worldwide.

In this regard he added that “Depression doesn’t discriminate, it doesn’t matter who you are, what your age, job or profession is. It affects us all. It’s a phenomenon with complex physical, psychological and social causes. The poorest sectors, with inadequate living conditions and unstable employment, are at higher risk of suffering from depression. Those who live in social conditions where their health is most affected are obviously at greater risk.”

For her part, Dr. Carmen Borrego, who manages the Ministry of Health’s (MINSAP) Older Adult, Social Assistance and Mental Health Department, explained that the country has a network of specialized services offering comprehensive care to the population, centered on a community model of medicine, led by the family doctor and nurse.

Borrego went on to note that as well as being trained to detect and treat depression, these health professionals are supported by 449 polyclinics, 10,869 doctor’s surgeries and 136 municipal departments specializing in Mental Health, grouped across Cuba’s primary care system.

Secondary level attention includes 17 psychiatric services in general and clinical-surgical hospitals, as well as 15 for children and young people in pediatric institutions and 19 in psychiatric healthcare centers.

The island also has a free, confidential and anonymous 24 hour helpline, run by qualified personnel, who as well as offering information and guidance on how to manage addictions, receive a high number of calls requesting psychological help for mental health conditions like depression.

Particularly at risk are older people who suffer from family abandonment, prolonged stays in health institutions, the loss of loved ones, physical or functional disabilities, chronic non-communicable diseases, feelings of hopelessness, alcohol dependence and other damaging habits, among other causes.

This situation is all the more alarming when we consider that Cuba is experiencing accelerated population aging. An estimated 19.8% of the island’s population is currently over 60 years of age; 15% of which live alone, another factor that can lead to depression.

In order to treat this and other related conditions, the country is implementing strategies geared toward ensuring healthy longevity provided by the island’s free, universal and quality health care system, according to Dr. Alberto Fernández Seco, head of MINSAP’s Older Adult, Social Assistance and Mental Health Department.

The official added that Cuba has various social and community projects aimed at integrating and increasing older adults’ participation in wider society. He mentioned older adult interest circles which emerged in the 1980s. According to Fernández Seco these groups are responsible for promoting “Cultural, social, and sporting activities; and the participation and socialization of older adults in society.”

Cuba also has 274 older adult community centers and 148 retirement homes, offering both full and part time places, which work to reinsert members of this sector of society into the community; provide them with adequate nutritional and medical care, contribute to their continued development and ensure that they use their time productively.

Nonetheless, the main aim of all institutions is to ensure healthy longevity for older adults in their homes and communities, surrounded by loved ones. However, this situation becomes increasingly difficult when elderly citizens suffer accidents, strokes, loss of vision and other related conditions which lead to an increased dependency on others.

In order to address this situation, the island has 250 schools where care workers are trained to aid and assist those in need of personalized help. Carers can either be contracted by the Ministry of Work and Social Security or directly by the family.

Meanwhile, training itself is focused on the importance of communication and spending time listening to older adults, explained Dr. Fernández Seco, who highlighted social surveys conducted in Cuba on people over the age of 80, noting that “They enjoy the sunrise, the rain, love and other manifestations of nature; they take on challenges and have a positive outlook on life. This is best way to prevent depression.”