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Robert Leitch: Politicans cannot cure clinical depression - but they must tackle its underlying causes

Robert Leitch is 21 years old and in the third year of a distance-learning politics degree from the LSE, whilst also working in Parliament for a Conservative MP. He is also a party activist in Orpington.

According to national health statistics held by the House of Commons Library there has been a staggering rise in the amount of medication prescribed to treat clinical depression in the United Kingdom over the past few decades. Needless to say Western society has been increasingly analysed, monitored and recorded in recent years with our patterns of behaviour making fascinating reading for a full range of psychiatrists, psychologists and sociologists. Depending on your choice of expert we could be considered to be living in a consumer society, an advanced technological age or even a post-modernist culture. Such over-analysis is seldom all encompassing or exclusive of bias, but the figures charting the rise of depression are worthy of further attention and perhaps, more worrying, even reflective of deeper flaws in our society.

These statistics show that between 1985 and 2007 the number of prescriptions issued for anti-depressant drugs rose from 6,000 to 34,000 per annum, a sixfold increase within a generation. Whilst it is true that the total number of all prescriptions issued has risen since the mid-1980s the rise has not been linear. Year on year the percentage increase in anti-depressants has vastly outstripped the percentage increase of general prescriptions. For example, in 2000 whilst the total number of general prescriptions rose by 3.32%, the total number of anti-depressants increased by 13.17%. Of course, statistics cannot be relied on exclusively but they do at least provide the stimuli for further investigation.

Any such investigation must not, however, belittle the illness. Depression is a hidden and silent ailment and one for which there is no single cause or cure. Its symptoms and consequences differ from one person to another with no timescale for recovery or indeed assurance of it. It can be hormone driven or reactive and as one of the ‘invisible illnesses’ its hold on people can be both frustrating and draining. A lack of understanding and appreciation from the outside world has created a terrible stigma which in turn also adds to the potentially catastrophic impact of depression on the quality of a person’s life.

But why has depression emerged on such a scale in the late 20th and early 21st centuries? After all we are now living longer than before, with healthier diets, more education and, in the developed world at least, an unprecedented provision of welfare conditions surrounding us. Indeed, the rise of depression seems like a rather contradictory process. It suggests that we are unhappier, more disenfranchised, less fulfilled and ultimately less able to cope with life in modern day Britain.

It might be claimed that the treatment of depression has only risen because there is simply greater awareness of it. To an extent this is certainly true. Yet, does this greater knowledge and research alone account for such a rapid increase? I fear that such a superficial explanation is not only too narrow in its focus but also potentially dangerous. If anything it can often seem as though we have lowered the bar for prescribed medication in the name of awareness and we must be extremely wary of blurring the line between clinical depression and simply “having a bad day”. To do so would risk inadvertently imposing a lifetime of dependency upon patients whilst encouraging those who see anti-depressants as the answer to life’s problems. Instead, I believe we must search wider and deeper for the triggers that have provoked this illness to spread so unevenly and disproportionally in recent decades. 

Such analysis leads us to question the very fabric of modern-day society. Such profound unhappiness with life or inability to cope with its challenges indicates a significant social shift and in truth we do not have to look too hard to see the causes of much of this dislocation.

A quick acknowledgment that more people are now engulfed in financial debt than at any stage before and an appreciation of the unprecedented increase in broken homes and families are natural starting points. Meanwhile, we have greater drug abuse, rising alcohol dependency and one of the highest levels of teenage pregnancies in Europe. Alongside significant increases in violent crime and court convictions there are also countless numbers of families who view themselves as trapped in the benefits system in our ever growing dependency culture. In my view it is unlikely that the rise of depression and such social breakdown is but a mere coincidence.

Looking at such wide-ranging social transformation in our society ultimately leads us to look at ourselves as individuals. Some will argue that our lives are shaped by our home environments, but it is essential that we grasp once again the importance of our own individual ability and responsibility to shape and repair parts of our society that may be broken. A silent social revolution has taken place in recent decades and we must now begin to address some of the negative influences which have surely contributed to the rise of depression.

We can start by promoting individual responsibility, aspiration, family stability and financial prudency across all aspects of government policy. Parliament clearly has an important part to play and tackling this matter must provoke a fundamental, rather than piecemeal, response. Quite simply, many of the problems within our social fabric require long-term, wide-ranging and radical policy solutions.

Politicians cannot cure illnesses such as depression but we do have a responsibility to promote positive values and to build the social conditions that provide individuals with the opportunity to build their lives on firmer foundations than currently exist. People will always suffer from depression but we should be careful not to encourage or belittle it. Instead, we must respect those who suffer, seek to treat where possible and provide opportunities for recovery and prevention by empowering the individual. This is an issue that requires rigorous debate and strong leadership – the next government must tackle the underlying causes involved if our nation is to have any chance of stemming the distressing tide of depression.


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