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Driven to despair

Released at: 07:30, 03/09/2017

Driven to despair

Photos: Viet Tuan

The negative effects of social media and the stresses of modern life are leading to higher instances of mental health issues in Vietnam.

by Le Diem

As a successful PR manager on a good salary, 29-year-old Ms. Lan Phuong has a job that many others can only dream of. There was a time she thought likewise. She loved her job, but at times it was incredibly busy and exhausting. Recently, though, she heads to the office with little in the way of passion. She’s single, but no longer interested in going out and meeting friends and new people. Her idea of fun is staying home and watching a movie, which she then might review on her Facebook page and see what others think. 
Even this, however, is starting to bore her. Nothing piques her interest anymore, and in her darkest moments she thinks about death.
Rather than following through with such thoughts, she decided to see a doctor, who diagnosed her as having serious depression, which is an increasingly common diagnosis in Vietnam. Others in a similar situation just struggle on, not aware of what it is they’re suffering from. Some take the step beyond thoughts of death, and attempt suicide, many successfully. The modern world, with its technology and social networks, seems to be driving larger numbers of people to despair. 
Greater stress
About 30 per cent of Vietnam’s population have mental health issues, with 25 per cent experiencing depression, according to figures for 2016 from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Some 50 people a day go to institutions to check on and treat their depression. About 30-40 per cent admit to suicide ideation, and there are those who wish to take others with them. 
Depression can strike at any age, but most commonly it affects people between the age of 18 and 45 and the number of young patients in Vietnam is increasing, according to Professor Nguyen Doan Phuong, Director of NIMH. The possibility of women experiencing depression is double than for men, due to fluctuations in hormones during puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, after giving birth, and pre-menopause. The rate is also higher among the unemployed, separated or divorced people, and especially among city-dwellers. 
Stresses in modern life are considered the main cause of depression, according to mental health specialists, with triggers including study, workload, workplace environment, salary, promotion, increased air and noise pollution, lack of exercise and rest, and, in recent times, a looser family structure amid the development of technology and social networks.
Social networks and smartphones
Lives and interpersonal relationships have clearly changed since the advent of social media and smartphones about a decade ago. A 2016 survey from the University of Pittsburgh on 1,787 adults aged between 19 and 32 found that most spend about an hour a day on average on social media and access it about 30 times a week.
The figures in Vietnam are about 1.5 times higher. According to the latest data from Facebook, each Vietnamese spends about 2.5 hours a day on the social media platform, which is the most popular in the country with over 30 million users. About 75 per cent of these are aged from 18 to 34 and they mostly use Facebook to post about their daily life, chat with friends, and follow their friend’s news feeds or favorite brands, which are mostly fashion, cosmetics, and electronics. Mothers account for the highest rate of frequent users, primarily via smartphones.
As the market for mobile and smart devices blossoms, with prices as cheap as VND2-3 million ($88-130) for a good smartphone, the number of smartphone owners in Vietnam increased to 36.5 million in 2016, up 25 per cent against 2015 and accounting for 38.3 per cent of the population, according to a survey by global data and digital researcher eMarketer. It predicted that 45.5 per cent of Vietnam’s population will be using smartphones by the end of this year.
Social networks and smartphones have become an indispensable part of modern life for many Vietnamese.
As an office worker, Ms. Mai Ly works on a computer continually connected to the internet, and her Facebook account is usually open. The first thing she does when she gets to the office is post something or check and like new photos from her friend or their status and comment or reply to comments on her page. “If I don’t do it, I feel like I’m missing out on something and I find it hard to focus on my work,” she said.
Not just at work but also at home, many people are attached to some sort of digital device nearly all the time. Parents typing on their laptops or smartphones while their kids play games has become a common family scene
Even outdoors, people seem to have their phone in hand all the time. Friends may meet together in a café, but each is focused on their phone and communicating with others. “When you post something on your page, it’s exciting to see how many people like or comment about it,” said Mr. Anh Dung, a student. “We can also chat with apps like Zalo, Viber, and Whatsapp wherever there’s internet access.”. He admits that he and his smartphone are inseparable and that he feels insecure and incomplete if he forgets to take it with him when he goes out. 
Social networks allow for people to show off something they have or have done and receive attention, which affirms their personal worth in a way that real life can’t, according to psychologist Dr. Huynh Van Son, Deputy Chairman of the Vietnam Association of Social Psychology. But the urge to post and check what others have posted can easily become hard to control. 
Many become less interested in real life and real people, losing their interpersonal relationship skills. Worse, they actually have a negative physical response when they’re away from social networks. Like an addict, many times they open Facebook just to post nonsense, Dr. Son believes. There is a group he’s aware of, with about 2,000 members, trying to quit Facebook, like Alcoholics Anonymous. Few are successful.
The University of Pittsburgh research indicated that those who abuse social networks are 2.7-times more at risk from depression than others.
A 14-year-old boy was sent to NIMH recently with convulsions and delusions. He was spending more than ten hours a day on his smartphone and Facebook. When his parents took his phone away, he couldn’t handle it. After treatment and being away from the internet and Facebook for some time, his problems gradually disappeared.
Specialists have advised people to try to control the time spent on social networks and to use them on useful activities such as research for study or work and to make a conscious effort to have real-life communications. Parents have also been warned to watch their kids and not allow them to become addicted to games and social networks, encouraging them instead to become more involved in physical activities.
If they or their children show signs of being addicted to social networks or of experiencing depression, they should go to see a doctor as soon as they can. A lack of awareness that this problem actually exists is a cause of higher rates of depression in Vietnam. But there’s also a degree of stigma attached to seeking advice from a mental health professional. Dr. Phuong said that the earlier depression is treated, the more positive the results. People need to be smarter, not just their phones.

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