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Afghanistan is the most depressed country on Earth

No, depression is not just a type of "affluenza" — poor people in conflict zones are more likely candidates

  • Often seen as typical of rich societies, depression is actually more prevalent in poor, conflict-ridden countries
  • More than one in five Afghans is clinically depressed – a sad world record
  • But are North Koreans really the world's 'fourth least depressed' people?

Depression is a type of affluenza: one of those mental illnesses that afflict people in rich societies in particular. It's more likely to occur when the more fundamental levels that make up Maslow's pyramid of needs — food, shelter, security — are met.

Or, as your Right-wing Uncle is wont to proclaim: People in poor countries don't have the leisure to be depressed! It's part of his pessimist cultural determinism: wealth breeds weakness, poverty requires strength. Hello, civilizational collapse!

A world map of depression

Image: Our World in Data / CC BY

Afghanistan is the most depressed country on earth, Japan the least (no, not South Sudan - it's playing its usual role as the biggest data hole on the world map - see also #843)

Turns out Uncle Burt's bit of folk wisdom belongs in the dustbin of history. As this map shows — with some notable exceptions, granted — it's not the richest countries that suffer from the highest rates of depression, but the most violent, the poorest and the most unequal ones. Darker means more depressed.

The data comes from the study "Burden of depressive disorders" (by Ferrari et al.), published in PLoS Medicine in 2013. The study shows that just over 4 percent of the world's population is clinically depressed — but that rate varies greatly per country.

Depression, a Dutch disease?

Image: Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / 2015 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Bridge crossing a canal at Kloveniersburgwal in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

The Top 10 goes like this:

  1. Afghanistan: 22.50%
  2. Libya: 9.27%
  3. Honduras: 9.22%
  4. Palestine: 9.01%
  5. Bahrain: 8.62%
  6. United Arab Emirates: 8.12%
  7. Netherlands: 8.03%
  8. Qatar: 7.99%
  9. Jordan: 7.73%
  10. Kuwait 7.51%

As suggested by Afghanistan's abnormally high rate of depression, decades of armed conflict and economic misery can have a devastating effect on the mental health of a population. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for Libya, Honduras, and Palestine.

A bit more puzzling is the strong representation of Middle-Eastern countries that are relatively peaceful and affluent: Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Kuwait. With just over 8 percent of its population clinically depressed, the Netherlands is the only European country to make the Top 10.

North Korea, even less depressed than China? 

Image: Luca Sartoni / Wikimedia Commons / 2018 / CC BY-SA 2.0

Street view of Tokyo, Japan.

With less than a third of that percentage, Japan is the least depressed country on Earth. Just like the Top 10 was dominated by a region (i.e. the Middle East), the Bottom 10 is anchored in East Asia, with both Koreas, Taiwan and China dominating the list.

  1. Japan: 2.46%
  2. South Korea: 2.48%
  3. Taiwan: 2.50%
  4. North Korea: 2.61%
  5. Mexico: 2.96%
  6. China: 3.02%
  7. Nepal: 3.04%
  8. Australia 3.05%
  9. United Kingdom: 3.12%
  10. Czech Republic: 3.23%

The others are Mexico (just under 3% depressed), Nepal, Australia, the U.K. (mind you, these figures predate the Brexit referendum) and the Czech Republic.

Just how depressed is the 'rich countries club'?

Manhattan, seen from the Empire State Building. Image source: Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / 2012 / CC BY-SA 4.0

Where does the United States figure in all of this? This overview of the 36 member states of the OECD — the "club of rich countries" shows that its members are all over the shop: from the Netherlands (7th most depressed country worldwide) all the way to Japan (least depressed country), showing a variation of almost 5.5 percentage points.

  1. Netherlands: 8.03%
  2. Estonia: 6.75%
  3. Turkey: 6.74%
  4. Luxembourg: 6.55%
  5. Latvia: 6.21%
  6. Switzerland: 6.16%
  7. Finland: 5.98%
  8. Norway: 5.94%
  9. Denmark: 5.07%
  10. Austria: 5.01%
  11. Greece: 4.87%
  12. Germany: 4.85%
  13. Italy: 4.84%
  14. France: 4.80%
  15. Lithuania: 4.79%
  16. Sweden: 4.76%
  17. Iceland: 4.74%
  18. New Zealand: 4.65%
  19. Israel: 4.58%
  20. Slovenia: 4.52%
  21. United States: 4.45%
  22. Canada: 4.35%
  23. Spain: 4.33%
  24. Portugal: 4.32%
  25. Ireland: 4.05%
  26. Chile: 3.99%
  27. Belgium: 3.98%
  28. Poland: 3.91%
  29. Slovakia: 3.60%
  30. Hungary: 3.31%
  31. Czech Republic: 3.23%
  32. United Kingdom: 3.12%
  33. Australia: 3.05%
  34. Mexico: 2.96%
  35. South Korea: 2.48%
  36. Japan: 2.46%

With a result of 4.45 percent, the U.S. in the least depressed half of the list (if only just). In the OECD, that makes America slightly more depressed than Canada, and slightly less so than Slovenia. On the global stage, the U.S. is on virtually the same level of clinical depression as Guinea in West Africa, or as the Pacific island nation of Tonga.

One indication that these results need to be taken with pinch of salt: the fact that North Korea ranks as the fourth 'least depressed' nation on earth. Surely, a country racked by a brutal totalitarian regime (not to mention the occasional famine) is more likely to figure in the Top 10 rather than the Bottom 10?

Herding various national datasets into one global comparison is tricky. The rate of detection may vary per country, for several reasons. Higher social awareness of depression may push the number of diagnoses up. A dysfunctional health system, or a social taboo against reporting mental health issues, may keep the tally (too) low. That may explain the low score not just in North Korea, but also for example in Iraq (4.48 percent — on a par with the U.S.)

Map found here at Our World in Data.

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.

Strange Maps #971

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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