Depression costs economy £8.6bn a year

New figures show impact of condition that makes hundreds of thousands of people unable to go to work

The blight of depression affecting hundreds of thousands of people across Britain is costing the nation's ailing economy £8.6bn a year, £3bn more than a decade ago, The Independent can reveal.

Mental health workers are demanding more funds to attempt to turn around the rising cost to the country of the condition, which leads to lost working hours, inefficiency and long-term unemployment. But many fear spending will be squeezed further by a reduced NHS budget, which looks increasingly likely.

The cost of depression is up from £5.2bn in 1999, according to analysis carried out by the independent research service of the House of Commons Library. The rising number of people prevented from working due to their poor mental health is thought to be behind the increase. The figure does not include the heavy burden placed on the NHS by depression. The research predicts that the cost of GP consultations to treat depression amounted to more than £33m in 2007-08, while treating depression in hospitals cost another £218m.

Department of Health figures put the cost to the NHS of anti-depressant drugs at £264.5m last year. Yesterday, campaigners demanded a boost to the £4m fund used to prevent the condition through awareness campaigns, which advise people on measures to reduce stress and encourage them to seek advice early when symptoms emerge.

Those out of work as a result of mental illnesses including depression are 70 per cent less likely to find their way back into full-time work, representing a significant chunk of the long-term unemployed. Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat MP who commissioned the figures, described the findings as "shocking evidence of the dramatic scale of the cost of depression".

She said: "Unemployment is already growing. In this financial crisis we can no longer afford to ignore the preventable causes of depression that are all around us. High levels of unsecured personal debt, job insecurity and workplace stress all damage our wellbeing. More Government focus on mental health and wellbeing makes economic sense. Measures to tackle workplace stress, extend flexible working rights, encourage responsible lending and keep people in work, would benefit us all. Ministers can no longer allow mental health care to be a Cinderella service."

The new figures emerged amid calls from the Mental Health Foundation for the Government to invest more in the promotion of better awareness of mental health conditions. Andrew McCulloch, its chief executive, said the Government needed to head off the growing costs of treating mental health by encouraging people to take preventative measures, such as exercise and setting aside time to deal with work-related stress.

"Depression can be a debilitating illness, affecting a person's ability to function," he said. "All people, whether or not they have experience of mental ill health, should be helped to protect themselves against the most common mental health disorders – depression and anxiety. Currently, only £4m of the £4.5bn of NHS adult mental health investment is spent on promoting good mental health – less than 0.1 per cent. Greater investment in promotion would be advantageous for both the economy and society."

A Department of Health spokesman said it had spent extra money on projects in schools, businesses and through local authorities and social services to combat the amount of people falling victim to depression. However, it admitted it needed to do more to prevent the growing problem of adult depression. "Over the past 10 years we've made great strides in transforming the way mental health is dealt with, but we need to do more," a spokesman said.

The figures did not surprise mental health experts, who warned that thousands of people suffering were still not receiving help, and services were being shut down. Marjorie Wallace, chief executive of the mental health charity Sane, said she remained "deeply concerned" about the number of people "left in the community without the consistent care and treatment they may need".

She said: "There has been continued loss of psychiatric beds for inpatient care, the closure of day centres and impoverishment of occupational therapies. While the Government is planning to increase the availability of cognitive behavioural therapy for those with mild to moderate depression, we are aware from the many thousands of people who contact Sane that there will continue to be many with complex diagnoses who may not be included in such programmes, and who continue to struggle without the necessary psychological support."

NHS leaders warned recently that the service faces an unprecedented shortfall of £15bn, which may well impact on services. The NHS Confederation said that it would be the "most severe contraction in finances it is ever likely to face". Its chief executive, Steve Barnett, warned workers that the service would have to "prepare itself for real-terms reductions".

A mental health crisis

By Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor

*Clinical depression is a common disorder characterised by low mood, loss of interest in usual activities and a diminished ability to enjoy things. If you have experienced three or more of the following symptoms, lasting at least two weeks, you may be depressed. A doctor may be able to help change your lifestyle, offer talking therapy or medication.

What are the symptoms?

*Loss of pleasure or interest in doing things?

*Feeling down or hopeless?

*Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or sleeping too much?

*Feeling tired or have little energy?

*Poor appetite or been overeating?

*Feeling you're a failure?

*Trouble concentrating?

*Feeling you'd be better off dead?

Who does it affect?

Depression is a serious illness. It is very different from the common experience of feeling miserable or fed up for a short period of time.

It is quite common, and about 15 per cent of people will have a bout of severe depression at some point in their lives. However, the exact number of people with depression is hard to estimate because many people do not get help or are not formally diagnosed with the condition.

Women are twice as likely to suffer from depression as men, although men are far more likely to commit suicide. This may be because men are more reluctant to seek help.

A few people still think that depression is not a real illness and that it is a form of weakness or admission of failure. This is simply not true. It is a real illness with real effects and it is not a sign of failure.

Depression can affect people of any age, including children. People with a family history of depression are more likely to experience it themselves. It affects people in many different ways and can cause a wide variety of physical, psychological (mental) and social symptoms.