Leading article: A depressingly widespread problem

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The figures we reveal today on the soaring cost of depression over the past decade may be taken by some as a sad reflection on the state of our pill-for-every-ill society. Where once people feeling down in the dumps were told to pull their socks up and get out more, now the condition has been so medicalised that millions of people are signing off sick and relying on drugs to get them through to the end of the day.

While some of the increase in lost earnings due to depression may be the result of rising levels of stress caused by the financial crisis and the threat of unemployment, it is equally possible to see the figures as a measure of how far diagnosis and treatment of the condition have improved.

Clinical depression is a disabling illness that drains the point as well as the pleasure from life and causes suffering on a wide scale. It is distinguished from the down-in-the dumps feelings suffered by everyone from time to time by being pervasive, affecting ability to perform every day activities and being long lasting. Around 4,000 lives are lost to suicide each year, many of them young.

Increased treatment for these seriously affected individuals is necessary and welcome. But there has been far too great a reliance on medication, at the expense of other remedies. Lifestyle changes such as more exercise - one of the most effective treatments for depression - can have a huge impact. If those fail, talking treatments such as cognitive behaviour therapy can help, evidence shows.

The Government has allocated funds to increase the number of therapists available in general practice but waiting lists are still far too long in many places. Equally, doctors can be too quick to reach for the prescription pad - in some south Wales communities one in ten of the population are taking antidepressant drugs.

It would be absurd to claim on the basis of these figures that Britain was a more depressed nation than a decade ago. But what the figures do is serve to highlight the scale of the problem and the challenge it presents, to doctors, employers and policy makers, in finding effective means of tackling it.

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