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

Even before she spoke out in parliament, Wollaston had been more open than most with patients and constituents about her experiences of postnatal depression and panic attacks, perhaps because of her background as a GP. By contrast, Walker had only told one person in politics about his illness since being elected MP for Broxbourne in 2005 and Jones, an MP since 2001, had not even told most of his family.

“I come from a very traditional background: my father was a miner and I was a full-time trade union official, so we don’t talk about these things,” he says.

There are other more common pressures though.

“You don’t want to be defined as a ‘mental health person,’” Jones continues. “Also you have this fear about what is perceived as a weakness: Will it affect people’s views of you, but also make you vulnerable? Actually my depression has made me stronger.”

In her speech, Wollaston spoke about how “at the happiest time of my life” after the birth of one of her three children, she was sometimes left feeling “your family would be better off without you.”

“I am absolutely sure that my own experiences of depression and recovery — recovery is very important — caused me to become a much more sympathetic doctor, and I hope that it made me a more sympathetic and understanding MP, able to recognise the issues in others and respond to them appropriately,” she said.

By speaking out, the MPs all hope to help others by showing the world that most — not all, they stress, but many — people with mental health experiences can lead interesting and fulfilling lives when they have had help. As well as having had early careers, getting elected and campaigning for mental health charities among other causes, all four MPs have made their mark on politics. Jones was a minister of defense for one of the world’s military superpowers; Walker last year won the Spectator’s speech of the year award for his intervention in the debate about a referendum on the EU: “If not now, when?” Wollaston became the first Conservative prospective MP selected, not by the usual route of a panel of local party loyalists, but through an “open primary” in which every registered voter in the Totnes constituency could vote for who they wanted as their Tory candidate, and she more than doubled the party’s majority in 2010; while Leadsom is one of the party’s most active thinkers, already strongly tipped to be promoted into government.

“A lot of people will be saying: ‘If MPs can talk about it, maybe I can start being a bit more open,’” Walker says.

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