The Government is diverting money to “sexy” diseases like breast cancer when it could save billions in the long term by tackling the root causes of mental illness, the comedian Ruby Wax has claimed.
Wax, who revealed that she is a lifelong sufferer from clinical depression, will attend a Downing Street meeting where she hopes to persuade ministers to reverse cuts in the funding which might identify chemical imbalances in the brain responsible for mental illness.
Famed for her brash celebrity interviews and writing contribution to the hit sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, Wax, 59, is campaigning to remove the stigma surrounding mental health.
In a Channel 4 documentary broadcast tonight, Ruby Wax’s Mad Confessions, she meets MPs who have publicly admitted that they are among the estimated one in four who suffer from depression and follows three successful business-people as they disclose their condition to their employers.
The American-born comic, who is studying for an MA in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy at Oxford University, said: “The Government is cutting funding from brain research and diverting it to ‘sexier’ areas like breast cancer.
“I am speaking to Downing Street but maybe it’s not ‘sexy’. The Government puts resources into cancer and breast cancer, which is important to deal with but let’s get this right too.”
“It’s not at the forefront of everyone’s mind but brain disease can cause cancer, criminality and heart attacks. They aren’t getting it in their heads, that it’s all in their heads.
“People are still told that depression is self-indulgence. With MRI scanners now we do know it’s a physical illness like Alzheimer's and schizophrenia.
“If we figure out how the brain works, we wouldn’t have to spend money on over-populated prisons. Instead of new-born psychopaths, we could catch mental illness in the young. We could educate teachers to spot the signs early.”
“We’ll spend money to build a playground for under-privileged kids but they wouldn’t be under-privileged in the first place if we tackled this.”
Ms Wax, who sought treatment at the Priory and now invites audience members to participate in her live stage show about depression, hopes employers will create a more sympathetic environment for staff to come forward. In her film she follows an award-winning engineer who couldn’t face telling his employers that depression was the real reason he took a month off.
She said: “If you admit to mental illness in the workplace, the chances are you will find yourself thrown out of a job. It is the last taboo. When you have a mental illness you are very unlikely to go through the stress of a court action to fight your case.”
“I talked to a couple of MPs. They believe the number of MPs with mental illness is really high but they’re afraid of losing their jobs or being ostracised by colleagues.”
From Tony Hancock to Paul Merton, the greatest comic talents have often fallen victim to what Churchill called his “black dog”. But Wax denies that comics were particularly susceptible to mental illness. “Spike Milligan was schizophrenic but this affects one in four people. It’s the poor person working in a shoe factory, people you’ve never heard of.”
Last year, the Government published a new strategy, “No health without mental health,” which promised to ensure a “parity of esteem between mental and physical health”. It recognised the interconnections between mental health, employment and the criminal justice system.
But the mental health charity Mind said that the strategy had been affected by cuts and changes to the English health system under the Health and Social Care Act. Mind said: “Services have to make big efficiency savings at the same time, which in some areas are resulting in cuts to mental health services. As a result, many people told Mind that little was being done at local level to deliver the strategy.” Mind is working with the Government and other agencies to improve the situation.
The Department of Health recently pumped £22 million into a programme to expand therapy for children with mental health problems. Health minister Lord Howell urged employers to sign up to a new Responsibility Deal pledge which guarantees a flexible approach to staff with mental health needs, including paid medical leave for appointments.
Ruby Wax’s Mad Confessions, 10pm on Channel 4, Monday