Leading article: Listen to Lord Layard

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The Independent Online

Depression, as a genuine, debilitating medical condition, rarely gets the social recognition that it warrants. Unfortunately, it has also failed to attract the government attention and funding that it needs. Earlier this year, there was rejoicing among many of the people who deal with mental illness at the news that the Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt, had officially accepted that people who suffered from depression should be offered a variety of treatments by the National Health Service - cognitive behavioural therapy as well as Prozac. This paper, which has campaigned over the past four years for mental illness to be treated with greater humanity and effectiveness within the NHS, was among the first to welcome Mrs Hewitt's change of direction. It has not taken long, however, before it became clear that this positive development is more apparent than real.

Back in June Professor Lord Layard, the economist who advises the Government on ways of advancing the nation's well-being - as opposed to its merely material prosperity - published research to show that only a quarter of those who suffer from mental illness, in terms of anxiety and depression, are getting proper treatment. Now, as we report today, he says they are still neglected. Indeed, people who need help are not even being put on waiting lists for treatment because those lists are simply too long.

The folly of sidelining this condition within the NHS has been brought home to us in a particularly tragic fashion by the bleak situation of John Hogan. He is the man who, while on holiday in Crete, jumped from a hotel balcony after a quarrel with his wife, taking his two small children with him. His son Liam died and was buried this week; his daughter survived. Mr Hogan survived too. He suffers from depression, and two of his brothers committed suicide. His wife said his behaviour was entirely at odds with his normal loving regard for his children. As Claire Rayner discusses over the page, it was because of his condition - aggravated by family difficulties - that he killed his own child. Of course, only a few sufferers behave in this way, but the case demonstrates the dangers as well as the inhumanity of giving this illness lesser priority within the NHS.

What seems clear from Lord Layard's remarks is that the health authorities' undeniable financial crisis - allied to the Government's obsessive concern with managing its targets for meeting waiting lists - has undermined ministers' good intentions for treating less serious forms of mental illness. Earlier this year this paper reported that health authorities were planning to cut as much as £20m from mental healthcare budgets. Yet it is a problem that continues to worsen: one estimate puts the number of people suffering from anxiety and depression at one in five. No fewer than nine out of 10 GPs say that they give antidepressants to patients who would benefit more from talking therapies.

More than three million people are dependent on antidepressants such as Prozac. The demand for alternative treatments such as cognitive behavioural therapy far outstrips the rate of recruitment of psychiatrists. Some patients have to wait for two years for access to a therapist - if they get on the waiting list.

Ministers ought also to reflect that a third of people claiming incapacity benefit are estimated to suffer from depression - a huge cost to the taxpayer. As Lord Layard says forcibly, the state has a duty to help those suffering from depression. The Government's failure to live up to its own promises is - forgive the expression - profoundly depressing.

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