We’re all depressed now? Redefining mental illness in a therapeutic era

Thursday 21 October, 7.00pm until 9.00pm, The Studio, 7 Cannon Street, Birmingham B2 5EP

Venue: The Studio, 7 Cannon Street, Birmingham, West Midlands B2 5EP

Tickets: £7.50 (£5 concessions) per person. Tickets are available from the Academy of Ideas website.

Produced in partnership with the Advanced Social Science Collaborative, University of Birmingham

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies and Positive Psychology for Dummies join bookshop and library shelves already crowded with books promising to help us improve our mental health and solve our emotional problems. Social workers, teachers, psychologists, therapists and counsellors all agree levels of depression, anxiety, stress, self-harm, and disorders like Attention Deficit and Hyper-Activity Disorder are growing. According to UNICEF, British children are the unhappiest in Europe. Certainly, there is an increase in those treated for mental health-related problems. Recent reports suggest there has been a 65% increase in spending on drugs to treat ADHD over the last four years. Meanwhile, the health service issued 39.1m prescriptions for drugs to tackle depression in England in 2009, compared with 20.1m in 1999 – a 95% jump. 

Yet there is disagreement about what all this really means. Some say there is a growing problem with our mental health, requiring preventative interventions in schools and more resources for those diagnosed with problems. Others say there is over-diagnosis and a ‘victim culture’, and that remedies aimed at those who are not really ill not only waste limited resources, but are potentially harmful. Debates rage about whether GPs, and indeed teachers, are trigger-happy in recommending drugs such as Ritalin to deal with behavioural problems. Others suggest schools employ counsellors, psychotherapists and ‘talking therapies’. Still others charge that the ‘medical’ label ADHD may be an easy alternative to dealing with simple bad behaviour.

So have we become a nation of psychologically fragile individuals, influenced by popular ‘therapeutic’ culture to see ourselves as depressed or emotionally-unwell, in need of professional help? Or is life genuinely more difficult for more people than in the past, especially within the context of the economic downturn? A survey for the mental health charity Mind, which asked people if they had sought help for work-related stress since the downturn began, found 7% had begun medical treatment for depression and 5% had started counselling. Are increasing numbers seeking treatment because of greater awareness, reduced stigma and improved diagnosis, or is the problem ‘over-diagnosis’, fuelled by professional self-interest and clever marketing by pharmaceutical companies? Some insist the spectrum of symptoms and behaviours now seen as emotional disorders in fact includes perfectly normal responses to life’s emotional trials. So do we just need to pull ourselves together, or do we really need help to cope with a distressing world?

Rowenna Davis
Labour councillor, Southwark; prospective parliamentary candidate for Southampton Itchen; author, Tangled Up in Blue

Dr Ken McLaughlin
lecturer in social work; author, Surviving Identity: vulnerability and the psychology of recognition

Sue Morris
programme director, educational psychology, University of Birmingham

Dr Jerry Tew
senior lecturer, Institute of Applied Social Studies, University of Birmingham; author Social Approaches to Mental Distress

Kathryn Ecclestone
professor of education, University of Sheffield; author, Governing Vulnerable Subjects in a Therapeutic Age (forthcoming)

Produced by
Kathryn Ecclestone professor of education, University of Sheffield; author, Governing Vulnerable Subjects in a Therapeutic Age (forthcoming)
Recommended readings
This is a story of resilience, not despair

Why was the mental-health lobby so quick to diagnose depression in the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground?

Tim Black, spiked, 1 September 2010

Can Preschoolers Be Depressed?

Is it really possible to diagnose such a grown-up affliction in such a young child? And is diagnosing clinical depression in a preschooler a good idea, or are children that young too immature, too changeable, too temperamental to be laden with such a momentous label?

Pamela Paul, New York Times, 26 August 2010

Antidepressant use rises as recession feeds wave of worry

Prescriptions have doubled in decade, NHS figures show, with doctors warning drugs are covering for counselling shortage

Rowenna Davis, Guardian, 12 June 2010

Are drugs the solution to the problem of ADHD among young people?

Figures revealed to Education Guardian show a huge increase in spending on Ritalin. Are teachers doing all they could to help children without drugs?

Rowenna Davis, Guardian, 11 May 2010

Depression’s Upside

The mystery of depression is not that it exists — the mind, like the flesh, is prone to malfunction. Instead, the paradox of depression has long been its prevalence.

Jonah Lehrer, New York Times, 25 February 2010

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