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Family breakdown key factor driving Britain’s £100 billion mental illness bill

Britain’s high levels of family breakdown are a key factor in the rising tide of mental illness, according to a major new report from a leading think-tank. 

The survey by the Centre for Social Justice puts the cost to the nation of mental illness at £105 billion and cites research showing that it accounts for a quarter of the years lost through premature death – significantly more than the toll from cancer and heart disease.

The report also finds that mental illness often strikes when people are young, with 50 per cent of lifetime mental illness excluding dementia starting by the age of 14 and 75 per cent by the time people are in their mid-twenties. 

Family breakdown in all its forms is strongly associated with poor mental health in adults and children, the report says, yet go unacknowledged in the Government’s mental health strategy launched last week. The role such breakdown plays in causing these problems is frequently overlooked by experts. 

Recent scientific data shows that mental health problems are increasing. Depression and anxiety have risen for boys and girls aged 15 and 16 since the mid-1980s, as have behavioural problems such as lying, stealing and disobedience. 

“Family breakdown and conflict were considered to have the biggest adverse impact on children’s well-being,” the report says. 

“Conflict between parents has been associated with an array of adjustment problems in children, for instance poor peer interaction, conduct problems, ill health, and depression and anxiety. 

“Children with separated, single or step-parents are 50 per cent more likely to fail at school, have low self-esteem, experience poor peer relationships and have behavioural difficulties, anxiety or depression.” 

Expert opinion is backed up by opinion polling commissioned for the report by the CSJ. This found that half the public thinks that family breakdown is a major cause of poor mental health. 

he report concludes that mental illness is also a consequence of family breakdown, with 60 per cent of the people polled taking this view. By contrast, only one third thought poverty was a major cause of poor mental health.

The report balances its warning about the damaging effects of family breakdown with a call for treatment to be more focused on helping the whole family unit as a way of preventing mental illness among children. 

The report probes the link between poor mental health, disadvantage and poverty. It finds that children and adults from the poorest 20 per cent of the population are three times more likely to have a common mental health disorder than those in the wealthiest 20 per cent. 

Mental health disorders are also more commonly diagnosed in ethnic minority groups although, paradoxically, GPs are less likely to refer them for specialist help, the report finds. Black African, Black Caribbean and Black/White mixed groups of adults are three times more likely to be admitted to hospital for mental health reasons than the population as a whole and through criminal justice referrals. 

Levels of mental illness are significantly higher among prisoners with more than 70 per cent of inmates having two or more mental disorders. 

The CSJ report, Mental Health: poverty, ethnicity and family breakdown, is an interim publication and detailed recommendations for reform of the existing treatment services will be published later this year. It has been produced by a working group of experts chaired by Dr Samantha Callan, the CSJ’s senior research fellow.

However, the report does outline a new agenda, calling for a renewed effort to break the stigma and fear surrounding mental illness, the development of a family-focused approach breaking down divisions between services treating different age groups of patients, a bigger role for family doctors, placing a greater emphasis on recovery from mental illness and a reinvigoration of care in the community. 

“We are currently interested in family-based solutions, how the greater prevalence of mental disorder in some sections of the black and minority ethnic communities and in the vulnerable can be addressed, and how stigma surrounding mental disorder can be reduced so that people access help earlier and are met with more understanding,” the report concludes. 

Mental Health: Poverty, Ethnicity and Family Breakdown Interim Policy Briefing


For media inquiries, please contact Nick Wood of Media Intelligence Partners Ltd on 07889 617003 or 0203 008 8146 or Alistair Thompson on 07970 162225 or 0203 008 8145.  

For media inquiries, please contact Nick Wood of Media Intelligence Partners Ltd on 07889 617003 or 0203 008 8146 or Alistair Thompson on 07970 162225 or 0203 008 8145.  



The Centre for Social Justice is an independent think tank, established by the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP in 2004, which finds and promotes solutions to poverty and social breakdown in Britain.  

In July 2007 the group published Breakthrough : Ending the Costs of Social Breakdown. The report presented over 190 policy proposals aimed at ending the growing social divide in .

Subsequent reports have put forward proposals for reform of the police, prisons, social housing, the asylum system, family law and street gangs. Other reports have dealt with street gangs and early intervention to help families with young children. 

The Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP stood down as Chairman of the Centre on his appointment as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in May 2010 and is now the Founder and Patron. 

For information about the Centre’s new cross-party Advisory Board please visit 

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