Victims of Recession to get Free Therapy

Article added September 23, 2010

Fears of a depression and an anxiety epidemic, caused by the recession, are forcing the government to offer psychological help to millions of people facing unemployment, debt and relationship breakdown. Sufferers will be referred to psychotherapists for expert counselling via an advice network linking Jobcentres, doctors’ surgeries and a new NHS Direct hotline.

Under the plan, which will involve training 3,600 more therapists and hundreds more specialist nurses, psychotherapy centres will be established in every primary care trust by the end of next year. The moves, to be unveiled by health secretary Alan Johnson and work and pensions secretary James Purnell today, reflect growing anxiety in government that there will be a surge of people who become mentally ill and, as a result, could find themselves unemployed for the long term.

Johnson said last night that he was determined to go “further and faster” to help people who were “affected psychologically by the recession”. He added: “In the current economic downturn, the potential exists for more people to become anxious or depressed. If someone is feeling down after losing their job, the best solution is a new job and we are helping people find them wherever possible. But, in some cases, depression and anxiety can be a barrier to getting another job.”

Johnson will announce that 81 “talking-therapy services”, offering cognitive behavioural therapy, a method by which people are encouraged to look more at potential solutions than the causes of their difficulties, will be set up this year – a 25% increase on the planned number. A network of employment support workers will be set up at every centre to give advice on how to get back to work. While doctors will initially put sufferers in touch with therapists, ministers want to move towards a system in which people could refer themselves by walking into centres and asking for treatment.

Ministers have already pledged to invest £173m to plug glaring gaps in the provision of mental health services. But, as unemployment moves past the 2 million mark, much of the funding is to be accelerated and brought forward to this year, with the focus switching to mental health problems. The NHS Direct phone service will be expanded, with nurses who are trained to spot signs of depression offering advice, while primary care trusts are to be told to use £80m of savings accrued as a result of the cut in VAT to commission new debt advice and family counselling services.

Around 6 million adults in the UK currently suffer depression or anxiety, and many of these are on incapacity benefit. Around 40% of long-term sickness benefit claimants are known to be affected by depression. Ministers are worried that past recessions have led to huge rises in the numbers of long-term unemployed. Purnell said it was vital to tackle the issue early. “We know pushing people onto inactive benefits can lead to a lifetime of dependency. We are working across government to give the help people need to stay in, or get back to, work.”

Paul Corry, director of public affairs at mental health charity Rethink, said the moves were a welcome step. But he urged government to do more. “We are already seeing increasing numbers of distressed people contacting our advice service with fears that employers may target them for redundancy, with problems over home and debt-protection policies excluding mental health problems, and frustration that the jobs market is slamming doors in their faces.

“Fast-forwarding plans to roll out psychological services is a very welcome move, but we also need firm interventions in the labour market to stop employer discrimination, and with mortgage lenders to protect people’s homes from repossession.”

Claire Tyler, chief executive of Relate, a charity dealing with couples and family relationships, said it was essential that people were also informed by the government about charity help on offer: “We have seen a substantial increase in demand for its emotional support services since the recession has hit home.”

Professor Richard Layard, a co-author of the London School of Economics’ Depression Report and a former adviser to government, said the moves to expand provision amounted to the “most important development in the treatment of mental health since the war”.

Toby Helm, Whitehall editor
The Observer, Sunday 8 March 2009

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