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It's not our libraries' responsibility to help the mentally ill. It's the Government's

News that GPs will prescribe books to help those suffering from mental health problems is a smokescreen - the Coalition is failing the most vulnerable

What do public libraries and the Arts Council have in common? Well, besides both being completely broke (thanks to government cuts), the latest thing they share is that they are now to help pay and support the mentally ill through a new “books on prescription” scheme announced last week.

The new “Universal Offers” programme developed by the Society of Chief Librarians and partners including Arts Council England and The Reading Agency will see people with mild to moderate mental health concerns ranging from anxiety to depression prescribed self-help books which they can borrow from their local public library.

The problem is not with the scheme. There is a an increasing amount of evidence to show that this kind of self-help works, the latest being research published in the journal Plos One which showed that people who used these methods over a year had measurably lower levels of depression.

Of course self-help books are no substitute for already existing treatments or appropriate for use in more serious cases. However anyone who has been given a referral for therapy or psychiatric treatment will know the wait between the trip to GP and getting treatment can be weeks, even months. Treating mental illness is never quick and anything that can help assist and support during those interim waits should be applauded.

The issue here is not that these organisations have gone above and beyond to support those in need. The big problem is the gaps in the system this scheme is plugging. Gaps that have been allowed to exist because of repeated government cuts, to health spending, to local authorities and to charities.

While the idea will be supported by the Department of Health and DCMS, it was paid for and launched by a number of organisations who are already juggling their own financial demands. Among those in attendance at the official launch was Tory culture minister Ed Vaizey who hailed the programme as “fantastic” and was keen to stress that libraries played an “essential” part in our communities. Poor you, then, if you are prescribed a self-help book but your local booklender was one of the staggering 200 UK public libraries that closed in 2012.

While it can be easy to be taken in by ministers patting themselves on the back, it’s important to remember this coalition was the first government to cut mental health spending in over a decade despite pledging to place it at the top of their priorities. Recent research from the Care Quality Commission noted that around 23 per cent of illnesses that people suffer in England are attributed to a mental health problems. Other studies, including one from the Mental Health Policy Group at the London Group of Economics, place that estimate much higher suggesting that it is around 50 per cent in those under 65.

In other bleak news UK prescriptions for antidepressants such as Prozac and Seroxat rose by nearly 4million in 2011 and the figures from Office for National Statistics published within the last fortnight show suicide rates in the UK have “increased significantly”. 

Now, mental illnesses are complex and caused by and exacerbated by a myriad of biological and environmental reasons. However, it doesn’t take a genius, psychiatrist or doctor to see that rising unemployment, welfare changes, widespread poverty, unmanageable living costs and constant reports of economic crisis aren’t the most happy-making of circumstances.

In a speech last October, Labour leader Ed Miliband said this was “the biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age” while the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of disease around the world. As the situation worsens it is time the government put its money where its mouth is on mental health policy - instead of leaving it to the librarians and the mentally ill to fix for themselves.