We’ve seen it many times, when one person stands up to speak about their mental health problems, in order to do their bit to challenge the stigma and discrimination that still plagues us, then others will follow.
Yesterday we witnessed this in a new arena; in the House of Commons during the mental health debate. This debate, in one of our most ancient forums, then sparked a wider discussion in one of the more modern forums, with #mentalhealthdebate trending on Twitter.
MPs Charles Walker (describing himself as a “practising fruitcake”), ex-defence minister Kevan Jones, Sarah Wollaston (a former GP) and Andrea Leadsom all openly disclosed their experiences of mental health problems covering the spectrum of OCD, severe depression, and postnatal depression.
This was one of those rare moments when all political parties come together to address an issue of common concern. An issue that directly affects one in four of their constituents and indirectly affects all of the electorate (as family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues). As Kevan Jones pointed out, it is also an issue for his fellow MPs; one in five of them having experienced mental health problems (as revealed by a confidential survey of MPs in 2008).
There is no doubt that what we were witnessing was a truly historic (if a long, long overdue) milestone. Alastair Campbell has been a huge asset to the work of Time to Change and other projects across England that are working to improve the public attitudes and (more importantly) behaviour. But he stands out as one of the very few people involved in modern politics who has openly disclosed his mental health problems.
Until yesterday we’d seen more disclosure from an unexpected quarter with increasing numbers of sportsmen and women from the worlds of cricket, rugby, snooker, and football talking about their mental health.
But yesterday we turned a corner in the “field” of politics.
Sarah Wollaston also set an example not just for other MPs but also for doctors. She said that she felt that her experience of postnatal depression made her a more empathetic doctor. Surely psychiatrists and GPs who have their own experiences of mental health problems should see this as valuable personal insight that would help their patients coping with, and recovering from, the same health issue, just like they would cancer or heart disease?
I’d argue that they don’t disclose their mental health problems for the same reason Kevan Jones gave. That people will automatically question their competence to do the job. And this is not unique to politicians or doctors; how many FTSE 100 CEOs, international footballers or rugby players (still in the national team), police chief constables, or faith leaders have disclosed it?
It is only once every single one of us who has experienced a mental health problem can speak openly in every walk of life and in every community without fear of unfair judgment, that we will have a healthier and more “productive” society where we are able to live our lives to their full potential as active and equal citizens, free from discrimination.
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