Probably every Herald reader has donated to cancer research.

Very few have given to research into mental illness. The discrepancy is easy to understand. But on closer examination it cries out to be reconsidered.

The first fact is the sheer numbers. Out of every 100 ill people in the UK under 65, two have diabetes, three have cancer and 38 have mental illness. It will affect one in four of us at some stage. Look beyond the numbers to the disablement caused by illness.

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Are you employable? is your life-expectancy reduced? Are you isolated? Are you suffering? The World Health Organisation has weightings drawn up by panels of clinicians, called the burden of morbidity: how much different diseases spoil life. Out of the total burden of disease in the UK (100%), diabetes causes 2%, cancer 16% and mental illness 23%.

Each week I painfully observe the severity of that suffering in a close relative. The impact on the UK economy is enormous. Mental illness accounts for nearly half of work absenteeism, about half of police time and is a factor in 80% of the prison population. It is reckoned to reduce GDP by £52 billion a year, accounting for more than 4% of our economic activity.

Isn't it high time that the NHS, the medical profession and the rest of us re-thought our response? NHS commissioners, despite the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (England) recommendations, give only 13% of their budget to mental illness. It receives only 6.5% of health research funding. These are cruel injustices. They are also short-sighted as some treatments more than pay for themselves in rescuing people from incapacity benefit and into employment and fulfilment.

Professor Lord Richard Layard of the London School of Economics comments: "The under-treatment of people with crippling mental illnesses is the most glaring case of health inequality in our country."

Then there is the unpopularity of psychiatry as a speciality. It's easy to understand. Psychiatric patients are seen as untreatable and difficult. At this early stage in understanding brain function, we treat delicate electrical problems in the brain by drowning them in chemicals, according to an expert in psychiatry recently.

So, pending advances in our knowledge, psychiatry is perceived by much of the medical profession as unscientific and ineffective. That is why basic research is so necessary. More doctors should be encouraged to specialise in psychiatry.

As for the public, for every £100 of charitable funds spent on cancer research alone, just £2.60 is spent on research into mental illness.

But there are chinks of light on the charity scene. Mental Health Research UK (MHRUK), set up in 2008, is the first UK charity dedicated to raising funds for research into the causes of mental illness. It gives 100% of all donations to research. The officeholders work without pay. They have already funded five PhD scholarships, with two more starting in 2014. They aim to recruit 1000 supporters willing to pledge £10-£20 a month (see

Last year, "MQ: Transforming Mental Health" was set up. With initial funding of £20 million from the Wellcome Trust, it has a vision that:

l Mental health is as valued as physical health.

l Mental illness is understood, diagnosed and treated like any other disorder.

l Research to improve the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness is a global priority (see

One way of discerning how civilised we are as a society is how we treat our weakest citizens. It is rather appalling how slowly we have cottoned on to the urgency of research into the causes of mental illness.

The good news is that we are entering a golden age of brain investigation. How soon shall we be able to say: "probably every reader has donated to research into both cancer and mental illness"?