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

However, if the afternoon has any lasting impact on those with mental health concerns, it will be because of the unsentimental, but unsparing personal stories of those four MPs.

I wondered how these courageous people felt afterwards: Did they wake up full of regret the next morning? How did their family, colleagues, friends and constituents react?

“Whether it affects how people view me, I do not know,” Jones said. “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.”

Once we are both seated next to the two empty chairs, Walker points out his local newspaper, the Cheshunt & Waltham Mercury. The front-page headline is: “‘Fruitcake’ MP praised for bravery.” Does he regret using the word?

“Absolutely not,” he says. “I have been involved in mental health for the best part of seven years: Part of the problem is people are terrified of it and they shouldn’t be. That’s why I thought it was important to show a lightness of touch.”

“Since it’s talking about my own condition, I can talk about it how I like. If we didn’t laugh in my own home about my own particular manic phases, life would be so much more difficult,” he adds.

Walker and Jones both spoke of guilt driving them to speak out and of feeling like frauds if they did not.

“Actually, I felt better for it,” says Jones when we meet later.

However, once the emotional high of the debate had subsided, did they regret what they had done?

“Yes,” admits Jones, “but the response afterwards shows it was the right thing to do.”

Walker says he had “little twinges” when he saw the Mercury, but says that strikingly his health was good in the days afterwards: If he had made a big mistake, the stress would have manifested itself in stronger symptoms.

“This is my driving passion and I hope it’s given me more credibility to talk about it, and more of a platform,” he adds.

A week after the debate, the four MPs between them have had more than 1,000 e-mails, letters and phone calls. Many colleagues have thanked them: Among 650 MPs, there must be more than four who have personal experiences of mental health — especially given that politics attracts driven people who have to live under the stress of constant scrutiny and frequent criticism. Most of the responses, though, are from ordinary people: MPs see many who are struggling with mental health problems at their weekly surgeries. The debate seems to have encouraged them to open up or simply thank the MPs for “helping make it OK.”

Jones tells me about a woman he met in his North Durham constituency.

“In her late 50s to early 60s, a middle-class lady came up to me and said she’d had depression for 10 years, and was an alcoholic for seven. She said: ‘What you have said has given me strength.’ If I’d passed her, I’d never have guessed. If you walk down the street, you can’t tell who has mental health issues,” Jones says.

The hidden nature of most mental illness is a large part of the problem: It is ubiquitous, yet those who admit to their condition feel that they are treated differently, isolated or even ostracized. Or fear they will be.

Research by Time to Change, a charity tackling the stigma surrounding mental illnesses, suggests four out of five people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination, half of those said it happened every day, every week or every month. This stops a great many from socializing, looking for or returning to work or having a relationship. Perhaps the most powerful testimony was from the 35 percent of respondents who said stigma had “made them give up on their ambitions, hopes and dreams for their life,” and one in four who said it had “made them want to give up on life.”

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