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Robin Williams’ death raises mental health debate

The sad death of Robin Williams has raised a wider debate about depression and how society deals with mental illness.

Robin Williams' death raises mental health debateDiscussions have ranged around the sad circumstances of the Hollywood star’s suicide and the fact that he had suffered with depression for some years – and the news on this week that he may have been in the early stages of Parkinson’s raises even more questions.

But his death has also raised wider questions about whether mental health is given the same priority as physical disorders as most people know very little about mental illness.

The new President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Sir Simon Wessely has highlighted the fact that society found it “apparently acceptable” that while with illnesses such as high blood pressure or cancer the vast majority of people were getting treatment or were known to medical services, the equivalent for mental disorders was no higher than 40%.

Prof Wessely acknowledged that the issue was complicated and that people who knew they had mental health problems often did not want to come forward for fear that their jobs would be at risk. But he argued that the waiting list for advanced psychological therapies was long and that the mental health situation needed to be higher up the political agenda.

In an unrelated development, Health Service Journal published conclusions they had drawn from Freedom of Information Act requests to 52 mental health trusts in England.

These included an overall reduction in nursing staff of 6% between 2011-12 and 2013-14 as well as a fall in the number of doctors employed and the number of beds. Charities and experts in the field described the analysis as painting a “worrying picture” and providing a “warning signal”.

In response to the HSJ report, a Department of Health spokesperson said: “We have gone further than ever before to put mental health on a par with physical health and have instructed the NHS to make sure every community does the same.”

The department points out that the mandate to NHS England states that every community must develop plans to ensure no one in mental health crisis will be turned away.

Calls for a higher profile for mental health and the need for a wider discussion on priorities and resources for patients suffering with depression are increasingly being heard. The sad case of Robin Williams has given new impetus to the debate.

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