Page last updated at 04:40 GMT, Wednesday, 2 June 2010 05:40 UK

Mental health research is 'incredibly underfunded'

Professor Til Wykes
Professor Til Wykes
Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London

mental health
One in four has a mental heath problem

Poor mental health affects 16.7 million people in the UK today.

In this week's Scrubbing Up, clinical psychologist Professor Til Wykes says strategies for funding research into mental health need to be overhauled.

Patients and their families deserve better, she says.

When it comes to thinking about mental health, I'd like to believe we've come a long way from the Victorian stereotypes of hysterical women and crazed madmen languishing in Bedlam.

But while physical diseases like cancer are managing to throw off the stigma they carried in previous centuries, mental illnesses are still too often ignored or misunderstood.

Not only does this lead to prejudice and discrimination, it also seems to make it harder to find funding for research into the causes of, and treatments for, mental ill health.

Improving care and treatment for people with mental health problems requires the same rigorous research as demanded for tackling physical illness.

However, despite the huge burden that poor mental health represents to society - from the disabling effects on individuals and their families, to the financial costs of dealing with mental illness - mental health research is incredibly underfunded.

In these austere times, it is worth bearing in mind that in England alone mental health issues cost us £77bn a year

Only 5% of medical research in the UK is into mental health, despite 15% of disability resulting from disease being due to mental illness.

It's estimated that one in four of us - 15 million people of all ages in the UK - will experience a mental health problem this year.

That's substantially more people than will have a heart attack or a stroke, and yet twice as much research goes into heart disease and stroke than is carried out in mental health.

It's more people than will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and yet cancer gets more than 25% of medical research funding - five times as much as mental health.

In these austere times, it is also worth bearing in mind that in England alone mental health issues cost us £77bn a year.

If we had a better understanding of mental health and better treatments for specific conditions, it would go a significant way to easing the nation's financial situation, as well as our states of mind.

Last week, one of the major research funders, the Medical Research Council, published one of the most up to date reviews of the strengths and challenges of mental health research in the UK.

It not only showed that the research that does get funded is world-class but that the UK is well-placed to lead the way in this area.

The review concludes that there are several opportunities to fund more research in the UK that would help accelerate progress in developing new treatments, or lead to better ways of preventing mental illness in the first place.

It means we have to set priorities. We have to direct the funding that is available into the research most likely to help.

But (and there always is a but) it sets the bar high in terms of funding decisions over the next few years and challenges the UK to really pull its weight in this much needed research arena.

Mental health problems frequently start in childhood and persist throughout the rest of a person's life. Finding better ways to treat - or preferably prevent - poor mental health as early as possible will bring enormous benefits to individuals, their families and society as a whole.

We simply can't afford to ignore this problem any longer.

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