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Robert Leitch is 21 years old and in the third year of a distance-learning politics degree from the LSE, whilst also working in Parliament for a Conservative MP. He is also a party activist in Orpington.

According to national health statistics held by the House of Commons
Library there has been a staggering rise in the amount of medication
prescribed to treat clinical depression in the United Kingdom over the
past few decades. Needless to say Western society has been increasingly
analysed, monitored and recorded in recent years with our patterns of
behaviour making fascinating reading for a full range of psychiatrists,
psychologists and sociologists. Depending on your choice of expert we
could be considered to be living in a consumer society, an advanced
technological age or even a post-modernist culture. Such over-analysis
is seldom all encompassing or exclusive of bias, but the figures
charting the rise of depression are worthy of further attention and
perhaps, more worrying, even reflective of deeper flaws in our
society.

These statistics show that between 1985 and 2007 the number of
prescriptions issued for anti-depressant drugs rose from 6,000 to
34,000 per annum, a sixfold increase within a generation. Whilst it is
true that the total number of all prescriptions issued has risen since
the mid-1980s the rise has not been linear. Year on year the percentage
increase in anti-depressants has vastly outstripped the percentage
increase of general prescriptions. For example, in 2000 whilst the
total number of general prescriptions rose by 3.32%, the total number
of anti-depressants increased by 13.17%. Of course, statistics cannot
be relied on exclusively but they do at least provide the stimuli for
further investigation.

Any such investigation must not, however, belittle the illness.
Depression is a hidden and silent ailment and one for which there is no
single cause or cure. Its symptoms and consequences differ from one
person to another with no timescale for recovery or indeed assurance of
it. It can be hormone driven or reactive and as one of the ‘invisible
illnesses’ its hold on people can be both frustrating and draining. A
lack of understanding and appreciation from the outside world has
created a terrible stigma which in turn also adds to the potentially
catastrophic impact of depression on the quality of a person’s life.

But why has depression emerged on such a scale in the late 20th and
early 21st centuries? After all we are now living longer than before,
with healthier diets, more education and, in the developed world at
least, an unprecedented provision of welfare conditions surrounding us.
Indeed, the rise of depression seems like a rather contradictory
process. It suggests that we are unhappier, more disenfranchised, less
fulfilled and ultimately less able to cope with life in modern day
Britain.

It might be claimed that the treatment of depression has only risen
because there is simply greater awareness of it. To an extent this is
certainly true. Yet, does this greater knowledge and research alone
account for such a rapid increase? I fear that such a superficial
explanation is not only too narrow in its focus but also potentially
dangerous. If anything it can often seem as though we have lowered the
bar for prescribed medication in the name of awareness and we must be
extremely wary of blurring the line between clinical depression and
simply “having a bad day”. To do so would risk inadvertently imposing a
lifetime of dependency upon patients whilst encouraging those who see
anti-depressants as the answer to life’s problems. Instead, I believe
we must search wider and deeper for the triggers that have provoked
this illness to spread so unevenly and disproportionally in recent
decades. 

Such analysis leads us to question the very fabric of modern-day
society. Such profound unhappiness with life or inability to cope with
its challenges indicates a significant social shift and in truth we do
not have to look too hard to see the causes of much of this
dislocation.

A quick acknowledgment that more people are now engulfed in financial
debt than at any stage before and an appreciation of the unprecedented
increase in broken homes and families are natural starting points.
Meanwhile, we have greater drug abuse, rising alcohol dependency and
one of the highest levels of teenage pregnancies in Europe. Alongside
significant increases in violent crime and court convictions there are
also countless numbers of families who view themselves as trapped in
the benefits system in our ever growing dependency culture. In my view
it is unlikely that the rise of depression and such social breakdown is
but a mere coincidence.

Looking at such wide-ranging social transformation in our society
ultimately leads us to look at ourselves as individuals. Some will
argue that our lives are shaped by our home environments, but it is
essential that we grasp once again the importance of our own individual
ability and responsibility to shape and repair parts of our society
that may be broken. A silent social revolution has taken place in
recent decades and we must now begin to address some of the negative
influences which have surely contributed to the rise of depression.

We can start by promoting individual responsibility, aspiration, family
stability and financial prudency across all aspects of government
policy. Parliament clearly has an important part to play and tackling
this matter must provoke a fundamental, rather than piecemeal,
response. Quite simply, many of the problems within our social fabric
require long-term, wide-ranging and radical policy solutions.

Politicians cannot cure illnesses such as depression but we do have a
responsibility to promote positive values and to build the social
conditions that provide individuals with the opportunity to build their
lives on firmer foundations than currently exist. People will always
suffer from depression but we should be careful not to encourage or
belittle it. Instead, we must respect those who suffer, seek to treat
where possible and provide opportunities for recovery and prevention by
empowering the individual. This is an issue that requires rigorous
debate and strong leadership – the next government must tackle the
underlying causes involved if our nation is to have any chance of
stemming the distressing tide of depression.

25 comments for: Robert Leitch: Politicans cannot cure clinical depression – but they must tackle its underlying causes

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