Wed, Aug 01, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Speaking up about mental health issues can reduce the stigma

In June, four British MPs bravely told the world about their own mental health issues in an effort to reduce the stigma. They talk about what happened next

By Juliette Jowit  /  The Guardian, LONDON

Charles Walker starts to sit down next to me, rises and pulls up another seat. “Let’s have this fourth chair here,” he says, and pulls it up between us. I think he is joking. However, he is not: Without the fourth chair it would be very hard for him to do this interview, maybe even impossible.

A week before we meet, the British Conservative MP stood up in the House of Commons and talked about living with obsessive-compulsive disorder for more than three decades.

“I am delighted to say that I have been a practicing fruitcake for 31 years,” he began. “On occasions it is manageable and on occasions it becomes quite difficult. It takes one to some quite dark places.”

One of the most obvious manifestations of his condition is his compulsion to do everything in fours: wash his hands, switch lights on and off, go in and out of a room. “My wife and children often say I resemble an extra from Riverdance as I bounce in and out, switching lights off four times.”

Walker is a compelling orator and his speech was full of poignant detail and humor. However, as we chat it becomes obvious that he is painfully serious about that fourth chair.

“You train yourself not to give in to it, but it’s agony: It’s like fingernails ...,” he trails off, the image of the chalkboard left hanging.

Walker was speaking at a debate on mental health in the House of Commons one slack Thursday afternoon, when few reporters were watching carefully. However, somewhere between fellow MP and former Labor defense minister Kevan Jones admitting for the first time in public that he had a history of serious depression and Walker explaining that he leaves crisp packets lying around because he can’t face having to wash his hands multiple times, the outside world began to listen.

Two more Tory MPs also spoke: Former GP Sarah Wollaston, who has experienced depression, postnatal depression and severe anxiety attacks, and ex-City banker Andrea Leadsom, who has also gone through postnatal depression.

The subject mentalhealthdebate soon began trending on Twitter. Many of the responses echoed my own: admiration and thanks for what the MPs had done from those with their own mental health issues — in my case clinical depression and anxiety.

The purpose of the debate, tabled and led by Conservative MP Nicky Morgan, was to raise the profile of mental health as an issue and address the stigma and isolation felt by the vast majority of patients. Morgan opened with some statistics: One in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their life; it is the largest cause of disability and accounts for 23 percent of the “disease burden” on the NHS, yet only 11 percent of its budget is spent treating it. Despite all that, the general topic of mental health had not been debated in the main chamber for at least four years.

“Just imagine if this were a physical health condition,” Morgan added.

During the next couple of hours MPs raised important issues: Advocates accompanying mental health patients when they discuss their treatment with professionals, Criminal Records Bureau checks, funding, cuts to social services and complaints about assessments of whether they are fit to work. Tory MP Gavin Barwell talked about his new private bill, supported by all parties, which will remove laws that institutionally discriminate against people who have had serious mental health problems — for example, barring them from being jurors.

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