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Mental health and debt – implications identified in new think tank report

OCTOBER 23, 2008

This week sees the publication of a major new project from Foresight, the Government’s Futures think tank entitled ‘Mental Capital and Wellbeing – making the most of ourselves in the 21st Century’.  Professor Rachel Jenkins, Director of the WHO Collaborating Centre and Professor of Epidemiology and International Mental Health Policy at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s led the mental health stream for this report.  She has also been involved in every step of the think tank’s process and was one of the key Science Co-Ordination Team members who oversaw the review and distillation of over 100 expert papers during the consultation phase of its development, and led the writing of the Phase 1 report on the mental health evidence base published this autumn. Subsequently she has provided her epidemiological , mental health and policy expertise to all the  areas of this week’s final project report. 

The 400-page report sponsored by the Department for innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS)  tracks the implications of future challenges for individuals’ mental development from ‘cradle to grave’ and took two years to complete involving more than 450 experts and stakeholders from many different countries and disciplines.  Although the project focused on the UK, the challenges of depression, dementia, learning difficulties and mental ill-health are in evidence across the world.  The project not only has implications for each individual’s life span but also societies and nations globally.  Five reports synthesize the evidence base and this final report published this week sets out the overall findings and options for policy.

16 per cent of the population is affected by common mental disorders (such as anxiety and depression) at any one time and there is evidence that mental health costs £77bn a year in England alone, with direct costs to the economy approaching £49bn.  The Foresight report highlights the risk to individuals’ mental health caused by stressful working conditions, more static lifestyles and breakdown in family relationships and social networks.  All these factors stand to be further exacerbated by the current economic downturn and the ageing population in the UK. 

Professor Rachel Jenkins speaking at the launch of the Foresight report explained that scientists have known about a link between mental illness and low income, but more recent research has shown that the link is probably most accounted for by debt.  Those in debt have two to three times the rate of depression, three times the rate of psychosis, double the rate of alcohol dependence, four times the rate of drug dependence compared to other members of the general public.  She said: “More needs to be done to encourage financial literacy and support people in debt to manage to escape their debts.  For example, I would like to see banks, charities and even utility companies providing more training in financial matters to help their clients who are experiencing difficulties with money and may need better support.”

She continued: “This strong linkage between mental illness and debt needs to be taken into account by financial organisations and utility companies and should be considered at a  policy making-level.“

Background on the report
This Mental Capacity and Wellbeing report looks at how a person’s mental resources change through life, as a child, adult and in old age, and identifies factors that can help or hinder their development.  The consequences are substantial for individuals, wider society and the economy.  The report concludes that there is a clear case for action across society including by Government, companies and individuals to boost both mental capital and wellbeing.

The study defines mental capital as a person’s cognitive and emotional resources; how good they are at learning and their ‘emotional intelligence’ such as their social skills and resilience in the face of stress.  Mental wellbeing changes from day to day and is linked to personal and social fulfilment.  Three of the main findings were:

  • Early intervention is crucial in developing and maintaining mental capital and mental wellbeing – whether its spotting and treating learning difficulties in children and young people or developing biomarkers to diagnose dementia in older people. 
  • A small increase in levels of wellbeing can produce a large decrease in mental health problems across people of all ages;
  • There is substantial scope for improving how to tackle the huge problem of mental-ill-health, which costs up to £77 billion a year for England alone.

The full report can be downloaded from:  Foresight is part of the Government Office for Science (GO Science).  Its function is to help Government think systematically about the future.  Foresight uses the latest scientific and other evidence to provide signposts for policymakers in tackling future challenges.

For further reading Professor Rachel Jenkins and colleagues involved in this Foresight report have had a feature published in the journal Nature entitled: ‘The Mental Health of Nations’  Volume 455/23 October 2008. 
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