Robin Williams' death has sparked wider debate

Robin Williams Image copyright AFP

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

Phone-ins and water cooler discussions 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 Friday 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.

A moving discussion on the Today programme featured Adrian Strain, whose 34-year-old son had recently taken his own life. He reflected on the fact that most people knew very little about mental illness and as a parent he always worried about whether he could have done more.

Also interviewed was the new President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists Sir Simon Wessely. He 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.

New impetus

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.