Comment: Politicians should be able to admit their mental health problems

By Sue Baker

It was little more than a week ago when I was listening to Canadian minister of labour, Lisa Raitt, make a remarkable disclosure of her own experiences of post-natal depression. For years she had thought about whether to openly disclose this experience, but decided to so during her speech to the largest ever international conference on mental health stigma and discrimination, in Ottawa last week.

It was heartfelt and incredibly moving to hear her speak so openly and honestly. There was no mistaking the other internal battle she had experienced; whether disclosure as a serving minister was a professional risk worth taking. This is the terrible burden that those of us with mental health problems face; the weight of stigma and discrimination and the potential consequences of disclosure.

I sat and listened with a growing sense of hope that perhaps we are starting to see more people in positions of influence, particularly parliamentarians, speak out and challenge the negative stereotypes that people still believe in.

But this was Canada and, whilst we've also seen high profile disclosure in Norway with former prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik speaking openly about his experiences of depression, we've relied heavily on the dedicated campaigning of Alastair Campbell here in Britain (until now). Yet we know that one in five MPs reported experiencing mental health problems, in a confidential survey carried out by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health in 2008.

The fact this has to be confidential lies at the very core of the issues being debated yesterday in the Commons. Section 141 of the Mental Health Act excludes MPs from remaining MPs if they are sectioned under the Mental Health Act for more than six months. Other historic Acts also bar people from doing their civic duty by serving on a jury, being an active member of the business world by being a company director.

This outdated section of the Act assumes that when someone has a mental health problem and needs hospital treatment (for which they were sectioned for more than six months), they are immediately deemed incompetent for the rest of their lives and the prospect of recovery a far off notion, when in reality the opposite is true.

Gavin Barwell MP is seeking to overturn this legislation based on archaic concepts of mental health problems with his mental health (discrimination) bill. We reached a significant milestone yesterday with the debate and the frank and moving disclosure by Charles Walker MP, Kevan Jones MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, and Andrea Leadsom MP. One a former doctor, one a previous minister and between all four covering a range of mental health issues including OCD, severe depression, and post-natal depression. There was cross-party unity on the need to tackle stigma and discrimination.

It was Kevan Jones' words that provided the greatest insight into his assessment of the professional risk he was about to take, by revealing his own experiences of "deep depression" that even some family members were not aware of. Addressing the Speaker of the House he said: "I just hope you realise, Mr Speaker, that what I'm saying is very difficult right now." He'd thought "long and hard" about whether to disclose his experience, the evening before the debate. He discussed how politicians are afraid to disclose as "admitting to fault or failure we will be looked on disparagingly by the electorate and our peers".

"Whether my having made this admission will mean that the possibility of any future ministerial career is blighted for ever for me, I do not know. Whether it affects how people view me, I do not know; and frankly I do not care because if it helps other people who have depression or who have suffered from it in the past, then, good."

Dr Wollaston MP also set an example not just for other MPs but also for doctors. From analysis of robust research undertaken by the Institute of Psychiatry, for Time to Change, to measure levels of discrimination reported by people using mental health services in England, it is clear that whilst some people are changing their behaviour (family, friends, and neighbours) health and mental health professionals have been more resistant to change.

She made a very pertinent point that she feels her experience of post-natal depression made her a more empathic doctor. Surely psychiatrists and GPs who have their own experiences of mental health problems should see this as valuable personal insight that will 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 MP gave. That people will automatically (patients and peers) question their competence to do the job. And this is not unique to just politicians or doctors; how many FTSE 100 CEOs, international footballers or rugby players (still in the national team), police chief constables, faith leaders have disclosed? The list goes on.

By my reckoning with four MPs now out and public, there are another estimated 117 still stuck in silence, probably feeling unable to disclose or choosing not to for a variety of personal and professional reasons.

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 judgement or discrimination, that we will have a healthier and more 'productive' society. With one in four of us experiencing mental health problems, and almost nine in ten people reporting discrimination, what a huge waste of talent. How many people struggle to keep the lid on this health issue, when early disclosure helps earlier help seeking and the ability to get support from family, friends and others – critical to so many people's recovery, including my own.

Yesterday was a very significant milestone, and there has been an outpouring of hope from people with mental health problems posting messages on Facebook and setting off a twitter trend during the debate but we have a long way to go until people can live lives to their full potential as active and equal citizens, free from discrimination.

We need to build on the momentum of this remarkable debate in the Commons, and ensure that the efforts of those four MPs yesterday has more than a fleeting impact in a busy political and news agenda.

At Time to Change, England's largest ever programme to end stigma and discrimination delivered by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness, we are working in partnership with all sectors and tens of thousands on individual supporters to move us nearer to a tipping point in our history when we treat mental health in the same way we do physical health.

Yesterday's debate will have inched us that little bit closer.

Sue Baker is director of Time to Change, England's biggest mental health anti-stigma programme, run by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.

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