So much for the stereotype of the easy-going laid-back Vancouver Island lifestyle.
Island residents suffer from depression and anxiety at significantly higher rates than others across British Columbia.
Every single Island community has a prevalence of depression-related illness that exceeds the B.C. average of slightly more than one in five people. For five Island communities, the rate is more than one in four.
So far, no one has collected enough information, or crunched the numbers in a way that definitively explains the situation, or what needs to be done to address it. And in the absence of concrete evidence, public health officer Dr. Paul Hasselback was reluctant to guess.
“I’m not sure we have an explanation so I am not going to speculate,” he said. “(Depression) is such a common occurrence in the general population.”
Studies show poverty, substance abuse and the incidence of other chronic health conditions can be contributing factors to depression, as can lack of job satisfaction and family and community connection. The rate is also somewhat higher among older populations. People also point fingers at the weather, exercise and connection to nature as elements that may come into play.
Statistically speaking, Lake Cowichan is relatively small and poor and depressed. The North Island is relatively small and poor and happy. The highest rates of depression and anxiety are found in the Cowichan Valley Regional District, the lowest next door in Nanaimo.
Another consideration in the uncertainty is the source data; depression is an illness that lacks objective physiological markers and is dependent on the self-reporting of patients. Are Island doctors more likely to diagnose depression? Are residents more likely to report it?
“People in the North Island physically aren’t that well, but they give us the highest standard of happiness,” Hasselback said. “How can we stimulate a greater incidence of happiness?”
Lack of explanation aside, he appreciates that these numbers can draw needed attention to the fact depression-related illnesses are the most common chronic medical conditions experienced on Vancouver Island.
“If you put it into context with other chronic illnesses it is by far the highest,” he said. “You’re raising all the same questions that I would like to see more openly discussed in conversations.”
Hasselback said the situation needs to become common knowledge in order to give this type of mental illness the same level of legitimacy society grants to physical ailments.
According to the federal government’s 2015 chronic disease surveillance system report — which uses a different tracking system than the B.C. Ministry of Health — about one in seven Canadians are treated for mental health issues annually. B.C.’s rate of 15.1% is the second highest in the country.
That same report states at least one in three Canadians will experience a mood disorder, generalized anxiety disorder or substance dependence in their lifetime and cites a 2010 study showing depression, anxiety and stress as the leading cause of long- and short-term disability claims in Canada.
“We need to have the same level of tolerance and understanding,” Hasselback said. “I think we’ve got plenty of ability to get better. The last thing we need to do is to persist in keeping a veil over these things.”
PREVALENCE OF DEPRESSION/ANXIETY
Lake Cowichan 26.8%
Comox Valley 25.1%
Victoria/Esquimalt/Oak Bay 24.7%
Vancouver Island overall 23.9%
Campbell River 23.5%
North Island 22.1%
British Columbia overall 21.3%
— Ministry of Health, based on 2013 medical records