For decades, many psychiatrists believed depression was a uniquely western phenomenon. But in the last few years, a new movement has turned this thinking on its head. By Tina Rosenberg

When Vikram Patel first began to study mental health, he believed depression only existed in rich nations. But today, he is the single most influential figure in the growing global movement to treat mental illness in poor countries, especially the most common disorder, depression.

In 1993, Patel, who was born in Mumbai, finished his training as a psychiatrist in London and moved with his wife to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, to begin a two-year research fellowship at the national university. His purpose was to find evidence for the view, then widespread among psychiatrists, that what looked like depression in poor countries was actually a response to deprivation and injustice – conditions stemming from colonisation. The remedy in such cases, he believed, was not psychotherapy, but social justice.

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