The power of data to raise awareness of mental health

There has been a lot of publicity lately around the issue of mental health in the UK.  No less than the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have been avid supporters of raising awareness for this cause, what with the royal couple launching their Heads Together campaign at this year’s London Marathon, supporting the BBC’s Mind over Marathon program and also releasing a set of videos along with Prince Harry that features famous people and their experience of mental health problems.  For too long, the issue of mental health was downplayed; it seems the tide is now turning.

At EXASOL, we took it upon ourselves to see what we could do to join the cause of raising awareness of mental health issues, and being a supplier of a high performance analytic database, we naturally chose to use data to tell an interesting story.  After all, when data analytics can be used to discover something of interest that goes beyond the confines of business and touches us all, that’s when you can really start to understand the power of data and analytics.

As a result, we set out to look at the rate of antidepressant drug consumption by means of analyzing prescription data in England.  We took 774m rows of prescription data released by NHS Digital and then tied it up with GP practice address data and patient demographics data, after which we then visualized the analysis by means of a heat map of England to see the insights.  A colorful piece of output, but easy to understand nonetheless: The greener the shade, the fewer the antidepressants dispensed.  The redder the shade, the more the pick-me-uppers handed out by doctors.

Given the recently publicity around mental health, it wasn’t surprising to see a number of news outlets express an interest in the story.  From national newspapers in the UK such as The Guardian and The Independent right down to regional newspapers wanting to hone in on the data for their areas.  Naturally, those areas that see high prescription rates wanted to cover the story.    Even radio stations got in on the story, including Heart which was very interested in Tendring, a town in Essex that is apparently the most depressing place in England.  Surprisingly, not one regional paper from a green area wanted to run the story.  It seems that good news just isn’t as interesting as bad news. 

Looking at the heat map, what’s interesting is not only finding the red areas of high antidepressant prescription rates, but also drilling into the data to find out the reasons why.  Why is it that antidepressant prescription rates in England have jumped from 9m a year in 1991 to over 64m a year in 2016?  Why is that the number of antidepressants prescribed is higher on the east coast than inland or along the south coast of England?

By delving into the data a little deeper, it’s clear that there is a distinct correlation between deprived areas and high antidepressant prescriptions rates.  Where the standard of living is lower, the rate of antidepressants prescribed is higher.  Most notably along the coastal areas of England’s east coast where seaside towns are often associated with high deprivation and where its residents suffer from poor health and high unemployment.  When combined, these factors lead to depression.

So what can be done?  It’s clear that these data sets are powerful.  Indeed, if I worked in government or for a health body, I would jump all over this data and ask why is it that it is costing local authorities a small fortune because they have to prescribe antidepressants?  Why don’t local bodies work together to change people’s lifestyles and give them opportunities so they are not getting depressed and running to their local doctor’s surgery to seek more pills?  Surely, it would be in the best interest of everyone to help find other ways of combatting depression without the need for drugs.

In all, we welcome the recent publicity given to the issue of mental health, but as this piece of data analysis has shown, there are ways that local governments and authorities can drill down into the detail very quickly and see what is going on in their neighborhoods.   Yes, this analysis and visualization tells a pretty damning story of the rise in antidepressants usage in England and mental health overall, but now it’s time for action so that other solutions to the issue are explored, which, after all, would be in the best interests of everyone concerned.     

If you’re interested in learning more about EXASOL’s in-memory database offering and how we can help you to unearth valuable insights from large data sets, then get in touch. We’d love to talk to you.

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