Gavin Maclure's Musings

My take on politics locally, nationally and internationally

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Will Robin Williams’ death finally put mental diseases on a par with physical?

Mental Health: Robin Williams

Comic genius but tormented person: Robin Williams

As a good friend of mine said yesterday, twenty years ago, the death of a celebrity by suicide, not accidental drug overdose, would have been quietly swept under the carpet by a media reflecting the public stigma of mental health issues. In 1988, another Williams and comedy virtuoso, Kenneth, killed himself too after battling depression, which, based on his earliest diaries, he had suffered all his life. The reaction this week to the very tragic death of comic genius Robin Williams was different, aided by social media, with much pondering of the terrible afflictions millions of people cope with, virtually alone and with very little treatment, every day.

I hope this cacophony of output from the mainstream media, blogs, and social media on the suicide of Robin Williams does mark a watershed moment where the key decision makers of our world finally wake up to the fact mental health care is woeful, even if you can afford (which Robin Williams could) the very best therapy and medication scientists have developed. The problem is the very best therapy (psychological techniques and psychiatric medication) is little better than black magic or the work of witch doctors. The latest craze is ‘talking therapies’ or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and although it does have some benefit there are elements which may indeed be counterproductive. It was only literally a few years ago psychoanalysis (lying on a couch talking about your childhood) was THE psychological way of solving depression and anxiety but that fell out of fashion. I believe CBT will also be discredited eventually.

It must be said there are psychologists doing the best they can to develop mental health therapies with the resources they have available; I think in particular of Professor Mark Williams and his work on Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) at the University of Oxford, but this research is merely a pinprick on the mind.

Scientists like Professor Williams receive very little funding – if he were a professor in oncology, he would be swimming in cash in comparison. But mental health is sadly the last to receive government funding for research into its cause and treatment. Very little is known about the way our minds work to the extent Professor Williams relies on ancient buddhist wisdom to develop his MBCT techniques because we know so little about the physiology of the most complex organ in our bodies: our brain.

Professor Williams has saved lives through his research which applies experimental cognitive psychology to understanding the processes that increase risk of suicidal behaviour in depression. But note the word ‘experimental’. A lot of people can’t be helped and they decide their only way to stop the pain and escape their mind is to kill themselves as Robin Williams, with all his money to pay for ‘rehab’, chose to do on Monday.

So, what can we do to alleviate this suffering? In Western democracies, it is our politicians who decide where to spend your taxes on researching diseases so if we care we must lobby them to spend more on mental health research (much more!).  But it’s not just about money, but better leadership from our politicians. Sadly, I’ve only heard one politician articulate he gets it: Nick Clegg. The Liberal Democrat leader has pledged to establish a £50 million a year research fund to help bridge the gap between physical and mental health treatment if his party form a Coalition government with either the Tories or Labour after next year’s General Election. Mr Clegg said: “I want people who are dealing with depression to be as effectively treated as if they had diabetes.” This is wonderful to hear and the rhetoric should be matched by David Cameron and Ed Miliband immediately – but this has yet to happen.

Much of the toned down rhetoric from all politicians is down to public opinion still not empathising with those who suffer from mental health problems compared to someone with a far worse condition such as a broken leg. We still have a long way to go if the big bucks are to be found to research the causes of depression, anxiety, OCD, schizophrenia and many more mental health disorders.

Most research money for any disease is from private investors and, of course, public donations. We have an almost fetish obsession with cancer research. Politicians will say, well, it’s because cancer kills. Err, is suicide not death? Dinner party guests across the country will bang on about how they are doing the ‘Race for Life’ and will be wearing their pink tutu in the local fundraising park walk next weekend, but very few will announce they give money to MIND or the Mental Health Foundation for fear of being branded a bit odd, a nut-job even.

Thankfully, this stigma is beginning to change but very slowly; hopefully this week’s tragic news will permanently help to diminish the stigma and kickstart a debate on mental health research funding. This is desperately needed by all those tormented by their mind.

I give money to the Mental Health Foundation each month but other charities such as Mind or Rethink or equally worthy recipients of your support.

Samaritans is available round-the-clock on 08457 90 90 90