Laws barring people who have had severe mental health problems from jury service and from being MPs or company directors are to be abolished following an extraordinary debate in which several MPs gave moving accounts of their own experiences of the illnesses.
Former Labour defence minister Kevan Jones, regarded by colleagues as a “political bruiser”, talked about having severe depression, a problem even some members of his family did not know about until he decided to speak out shortly before the debate. “In politics we are designed to think that somehow if you admit fault or frailty you are going to be looked on in a disparaging way both by the electorate but also by your peers,” said the North Durham MP. “Actually admitting that sometimes you need help is not a sign of weakness.”
Conservative backbencher Charles Walker described having obsessive compulsive disorder for more than three decades, meaning he had to do everything in sets of four such as turning lights on and off, or washing his hands. “Woe betide me if I switch off a light five times, then I must do it another three times. Counting becomes very, very important,” added the Broxbourne MP, who said the illness had taken him to some “quite dark places”.
Former GP and Tory MP Sarah Wollaston said she had had depression, post-natal depression and severe anxiety attacks, including suicidal thoughts: “I know what it’s like and I’m sure there are many other members of this house who will know exactly what it feels like to feel that your family would genuinely be better off without you, and to experience the paralysis that can come with severe depression,” she said. “I’m absolutely sure my own experiences of depression and recovery made me go on to be a much more sympathetic doctor and, I hope, a more sympathetic and understanding MP.”
Another woman MP, Andrea Leadsom, also recounted her post natal depression: “It is unbelievable how awful you feel when you are sitting with your tiny baby in your arms, and your baby cries and so do you,” she said. “You can’t even make yourself a cup of tea, you just feel so utterly useless.”
The health minister Paul Burstow said the government would support a private member’s bill by the MP Gavin Barwell which would remove laws which discriminate against people who have mental health problems, including a ban on “mentally disordered persons” from doing jury service, a bar on people who have been sectioned under the Mental Health Act for more than six months from becoming MPs, and another that can have people removed as director of a company “by reason of their mental health”.
Barwell, the Tory MP for Croydon Central, said: “I believe … we will look back in just a few years time and be amazed that this nonsense was on the statute book in 2012. Beyond the relatively small number of people the bill will directly help, it will send out a clear message that discriminiation is wrong.”
Sue Baker, director of Time To Change, England’s biggest mental health anti-stigma programme, said: “This will go down in the history books as we have never before seen our political leaders and parliamentarians feel able to discuss their mental health problems openly without fear of discrimination. We want people from all walks of life to be able to do the same and it’s great to see politicians making a stand.”
Conservative MP Robert Buckland said: “I think the word historic is not an overstatement today.”
The mental health debate was led by another Tory backbencher, Nicky Morgan, who said one in four people would experience mental health problems at some time, but it was the first proper debate on the issue on the main floor of the House of Commons for at least four years. “Imagine if this was a physical health condition and that had not been talked about by the House of Commons other than in adjournment debates for a very long time,” she added.