John Geddes, professor of epidemiological psychiatry at Oxford university warned this week: "Depression is the single largest contributor to global disability that we have – a massive challenge for humanity."

It is estimated that around 350 million people are afflicted worldwide. More worryingly, the numbers jumped 20% between 2005 and 2015. That rise is expected to carry on.

A week ago, our newspapers and airwaves were excitedly informing miserabilists that women, men and children from north to south, east to west, are better off than they have ever been in history. Surely some mistake? Can this be true?

Yes, because Professor Stephen Pinker, the exceedingly famous Harvard psychologist says so in his new book, Enlightenment Now. He has the figures to prove it and enough optimism to fill a zillion, cheerful air balloons.

His take, in brief: People are living longer, are healthier, have more food, and are less likely to become victims of natural disasters or political conflicts. Epidemics, infant and mother deaths have gone down. Females are doing better; democracy is spreading. Although about 10% of humans are still excruciatingly poor, such extreme poverty is declining as prosperity spreads. Just as the global economic system loses credibility among millions, Pinker writes a hymn to it.

So are humans heading to perdition or creating heaven on Earth? I think both. Most humans have never had it so good and yet they feel more fragile and less able to cope with what used to be thought of as the normal vicissitudes of life. Or maybe they are not hiding their feelings and pain the way most felt they had to in previous decades.

Other studies have shown that people living in affluent countries are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder than those in poorer nations. Scientists, from the Netherlands, Australia and London, expected to find that people in areas which had experienced wars or had serious environmental, economic and political instabilities would show higher levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than citizens of developed countries. They found the opposite.

In their paper, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, they reveal that Canada has the highest levels of PTSD, followed by the Netherlands, Australia, the US and New Zealand. The lowest levels were found in Nigeria, China and Romania.

350 million people are afflicted with depression worldwide. Gerald Gabernig

One of the authors, Prof Chris Brewin from University College London, attempts to understand this paradox: "You thought you were living in a world which is basically safe, people are basically well disposed toward you, and something happens that completely turns those ideas upside down... that makes it really hard for people to get over these events... But if you've been brought up in a very different society... You already see the world as a much more dangerous place and it may not be so surprising when something terrible happens."

That could be a partial explanation. I know a young person in my family who had a charmed home life and then could not cope with the rough and tumble of school and life's many disappointments. She had a breakdown.

But something else is also going on.

Materialism leaves a big black hole inside millions of people. The more you have, the less content you feel. Some of this is to do with not finding the perfection you are daily and hourly promised by advertisers, businesses and media.

Then there are, for the young especially, constant reminders through various online platforms, that others have more than you have, or look better or are better loved. That constant feeling of failure and wretchedness becomes an illness.

Employee and employer burnouts are at an all time high. This is a modern epidemic, a disease that gets into your heart and soul. I will never have that inner peace because striving is a habit, an addiction. And yes, I go through depressive periods. Yet I have everything I have ever wanted.

Practitioners are divided on what should be done about the growing mental crises. The extensive research carried out by Geddes and his team also promises ( a little too sanguinely) that anti-depressants work. We should welcome that with two cheers. For some sufferers, medication is the answer. For others, like my sister, they dull the senses and can have a zombifying effect. It would be wise to be cautious.

Professor Pinker and other such believers in unending progress are mechanistic and cleanly scientific. Human beings are unpredictable and messy. Many of their needs cannot be measured. Too many aren't coping in our brave new world.

Only by rethinking economic and social models and the meaning of life can this degeneration be stopped. In their compelling book, How Much is Enough?, Robert and Edward Skidelsky conclude that endless growth and the unending pursuit of wealth is a madness. They were speaking metaphorically.

It turns out the system is actually making people sad and mad. Anti-depressants won't solve that deep malaise.

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, please contact a free support service at or call 0300 123 3393 (charges apply).