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LSE study led by Labour peer found that failed relationships and physical and mental illness were bigger causes of misery than poverty

Clinical psychologists have raised the alarm over a controversial piece of research led by a Labour peer, with one saying it “lets austerity off the hook” as a cause of mental health problems.

The London School of Economics study led by Lord Richard Layard, published in early December, found that failed relationships and physical and mental illness were bigger causes of misery than poverty. The study, headlined the “Origins of happiness”, made the claim that eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20%, while eliminating poverty would only reduce it by 5%.

But psychologists who spoke to the Guardian said that the findings ran in the face of decades of evidence showing that an individual’s social circumstances had a big impact on mental health.

“It lets politicians off the hook, it lets austerity off the hook, it says that all that doesn’t matter, making a better society doesn’t matter, just offering technical treatments,” said Dr Anne Cook, director of clinical psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University. “I am one of the people that offers technical treatments and I think they can be extremely helpful to some people but that argument is being stretched beyond the point at which it applies.”

Dr Peter Kinderman, president of the British Psychological Society, said he welcomed Layard’s call for a focus on national wellbeing through investment in mental health services. But he had misgivings about how the study had treated mental illness as a distinct variable from human misery. “I’m not sure that is quite the same as saying that our wellbeing … would be better off if we were to tackle mental illness, because it suggests that the one variable is the cause of the other where I would see them as the same,” Kinderman said.

It is understood that the LSE study has caused widespread unease among clinical psychologists, particularly as Layard is highly influential with policymakers.

Layard’s work has previously led to David Cameron’s adoption of national wellbeing statistics, and he was also a driving force behind the adoption of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies to increase access to “talking therapies” on the NHS.

That latter policy was particularly controversial because it established finding work as an outcome of psychological treatment, which critics said may not be a suitable outcome for some and encouraged a policy of forcing people into work which may not be appropriate for them.

Now Layard, an economist by training, is calling for a “new role for the state” that swaps wealth creation for wellbeing creation through targeted mental health interventions.

Dr Jay Watts, a clinical psychologist, said his call “negates decades worth of data linking mental health to poverty”. “It’s ripe for misuse … in the current political climate,” she added.

Sarah Carr, vice-chair of the National Survivor User Network, said that Layard’s findings failed to reflect the realities of people who have experienced mental health problems. “We’ve got people who are now known as the precariat,” Carr said. “We have in-work poverty, we have people who need to rely on welfare benefits, we have people who are in debt, and these have massive effects on people’s mental health anyway. “Even if they didn’t have a pre-existing condition they can exacerbate pre-existing conditions, and they affect people’s relationships. It’s a problematic piece of research to use to make such a high-level, universal policy proposal.”

Cook said that rather than focusing on mental health interventions, as Layard suggested, a better way to improve people’s wellbeing on a societal level would be to take a public health approach. “Cholera wasn’t eradicated by developing new treatments, it was eradicated by improving drains back in pre-Victorian times,” she said.

“What [Layard] neglects is the people at the bottom of the pile who are really, really struggling, and in current circumstances there are a lot of them. People who you see at food banks for example, who are in incredible distress and certainly would – most of them or a lot of them – meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder or depression. “But it’s largely a response to their circumstances. If we do something about that, rates of mental illness in the population are going to come down a lot more effectively than providing a lot more therapy.”

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