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With more and more people in Japan complaining of depression, drug companies are enjoying a bonanza in pushing antidepressants.

Aggressive publicity campaigns by pharmaceutical companies have eroded a long-standing aversion to taking antidepressants or going to hospitals for outpatient treatment of depression for fear of being stigmatized as having mental problems.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) of Britain conducted a campaign in Japan last autumn aimed at enhancing public understanding of depression. It received more than 40,000 responses.

Many of the respondents said they have realized that depression is not a special disease, according to the company, which said it will keep offering counseling by phone and on its Web site and distributing booklets until December.

“We want to enlighten people that depression can be cured by proper treatment,” an official of the company said.

GSK is selling antidepressants in more than 100 countries, including Japan, and chalked up sales of £2 billion, or about 380 billion yen, last year.

U.S. pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc. is also selling antidepressants, and its sales last year came to $2.7 billion, or about 320 billion yen. It has applied for approval to sell the drugs in Japan.

The new-generation drugs for depression, called SSRI, work directly on neurotransmitters in the brain and reportedly have fewer and less serious side effects.

They have spread throughout the world in the wake of the launch of Prozac in the second half of the 1980s.

The foreign manufacturers are out to market the drugs in the “stressful society” of Japan by capitalizing on their marketing experience in other countries, an industry watcher said.

Fujisawa Pharmaceutical Co. in 1999 became the first Japanese drug maker to sell antidepressants.

According to Fuji-keizai Co., a market research firm, the Japanese market for antidepressants, which had long remained at about 20 billion yen, expanded sharply to about 55 billion yen last year.

Depression can lead to suicide, of which there have been more than 30,000 cases in Japan every year for the past five years.

The World Health Organization estimates the number of people suffering from depression at over 100 million worldwide.

“The increasing number of elderly is also a factor behind the increase in the number of patients,” said Nobuo Kiriike, an Osaka City University professor specializing in neuropsychiatry.

Elderly people who have lost their spouse or have a chronic physical disorder are often afflicted with depression, Kiriike said.

Reflecting the situation, the number of psychiatrists and hospitals for psychiatric care has also increased.

There were an estimated 9,500 psychiatrists in Japan in 1994, and the number had risen to 11,000 in 2000, posting a faster growth rate than that for medical doctors.

Some psychiatrists do not advertise their specialty on their sign so that patients do not feel inhibited about visiting their clinic.

What should you do if you feel you are threatened with depression? “Take adequate rest,” Kiriike advised. “Depression is a signal that you have to take a rest.”