Most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, love a good stat and some startling ones have emerged lately. The divorce rate in Maine correlates almost exactly with US margarine consumption. Coincidence?
But, as an academic I’m keen that our relationship with figures doesn’t take a slide into the spurious and spread-related. Big data can interest, empower and influence – and nowhere more so than in the field of mental health.
This week, new figures were released showing that antidepressant use has been rising since 1998, from 15m prescriptions to 40m in 2012. Significantly, during the recession, the rate of increase was higher; 8.5% per year compared to 6.7% before the crisis hit. It’s a visceral statistic that brings home the deep, personal effect the economy can have. This is why we need a good relationship with work.
Research has consistently linked job insecurity and change to mental wellbeing and in some cases mental ill-health. These new figures not only confirm it on a national scale, but they go further in demonstrating links between mental health and other issues like quality of housing and the cost of living.
It raises many questions. I’m not about to go down the route of arguing for and against medication, others do that more effectively and it’s worth noting that NHS talking therapies are on the rise too, with big plans for the next few years. My question is this: can we afford to have a cynical attitude to societal data and the kind of research wrongly labelled as ‘fluffy’, if it can yield as invaluable information of the type mentioned above?
Looking at the figures on antidepressants, can we make any more links between local government policy and mental wellbeing in the community? It’s this kind of enquiry which should be informing medical practice and more national policy. In some cases it already is but the strength of our research efforts can go further. Can these kind of links with personal health outcomes be part of raising some sections of the public out of political and health apathy…?
I’ve no doubt that a lot of this information is already out there, or being worked on as the blogosphere turns. What it needs more of is populist attention – and our evolving obsession with big data and devices can facilitate that. Which brings me to a personal plea: let’s share the interesting snippets and new research that emerge and make sure that their findings are heard, and considered.
I’m lucky to be involved in the Good Day at Work™ project, where ideas and research from around the world fly about our office every day, many of which we know would be of great interest to policy makers and the archetypal person in the street alike. And, whilst this kind of information sharing and debate can’t set healthcare budgets or policy, it’s true that the level of mental health ‘literacy’ across the UK is growing and with it the demand (and electoral power) for differences to be made.
It would be fantastic if at the general election next year just one party took mental health on as a flagship priority, alongside the other societal issues like cost of living and employment. They’d could count on my vote, at least.
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Professor Cary Cooper, Director and Founder of Robertson Cooper Ltd, Distinguished Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University.
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