This article is from the May issue of Total Politics
“What’s on this afternoon?” asked one MP, overhead by me recently in Portcullis House, as he peered at the order paper. “Something about mental health,” his colleague replied, snorting: “We’re in the right place for it.”
Mental health issues may dominate the constituency surgeries, but in the Commons they are still talked about mostly in jest. As a place of work, the Palace of Westminster must be one of the unhealthiest environments in Britain for good mental health. The workload is endless, the hours long, a drinking culture pervades and it’s still a macho environment where some view admissions of human frailty as weakness.
Add to that the fact that most MPs spend long periods away from their families and you have, bar low pay, just about every risk factor going. So why are MPs such a hardy bunch? The reality is, they aren’t.
A survey carried out by the mental health charity Stand to Reason polled 94 MPs before the last election. It found one in five had experienced mental health problems. That puts politicians almost in line with the national average. One in four members of the public will experience mental health issues at some point in their lives.
Jonathan Naess, director of Stand to Reason, says: “I know of two MPs who have secretly battled mental health problems. They don’t speak out because of family and constituency concerns and because they’re worried it will be seen as weakness. The disclosures we have had come from those no longer serving, like John Prescott.” (He revealed his battle with bulimia in his 2008 autobiography.)
Naess continues: “We need people in Parliament who are prepared to be honest. Parliament is supposed to represent its people: where’s the representation for the one in four?”
Aside from a couple of high profile breakdowns, you would be hard-pressed to name any MP who has admitted to battling depression or to suffering any other mental illness. Part of the reason is Britain’s outdated legislation. Section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983 states that MPs detained on grounds of mental illness for six months or more would have to vacate their seat. In January 2010 the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation recommended that the provision should be repealed.
It took another year for the government to announce that the discriminatory law – a clear breach of the Human Rights Act – would go “at the earliest opportunity”. A year on, and it was left to cross-bench peer Lord Stevenson of Coddenham to champion the move in his private member’s bill. The government supports the Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill and has promised it will become law in the next session.
It’s a long road to be rid of a law that was never used. You would have to go back to 1916, and preacher-turned-politician Dr Charles Leach, to find the last parliamentarian removed from his seat on mental health grounds. The Liberal MP was appointed as chaplain to the armed forces during the First World War and spent his nights visiting the wounded in London military hospitals. The strain of his parliamentary life, combined with the horror of what he witnessed on those wards, pushed Dr Leach into a nervous breakdown. For that he was forced out of Parliament under the bluntly titled Lunacy (Vacating of Seats) Act.
But times have changed. When Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley had to take time off in 2010 to recover from reported depression, neighbouring Conservative MPs Matthew Hancock and Daniel Poulter stepped in to carry out constituency business on his behalf. The party’s chief whip, Patrick McLoughlin, ensured the smooth running of Ruffley’s office, while concerned constituents sent letters and cards wishing him a speedy recovery. Ruffley is now back in Westminster and back on form. He serves on the Treasury select committee and is courted by the centre-right media for his witty and forthright views.
Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former director of communications, charts his own battle, at just 29, with alcohol-fuelled depression in his book The Happy Depressive. He gave evidence to the Speaker’s Conference and remains a passionate advocate for Time to Change, the campaign to end mental health discrimination.
He says: “The repeal of Section 141 is symbolic. It has never been used, but it is a piece of discrimination. If you are incapacitated through physical ill health there is nothing in the law that says you can no longer be an MP. That is what Time for Change is all about, putting mental and physical health on a par.”
Campbell argues that mental health problems are probably the last taboo for Parliament, where even coming out of the closet has become a rather low-key event. While sports stars like Freddie Flintoff, Vinnie Jones and Barry McGuigan have become pioneers for a new approach to mental health issues, politicians are lagging behind.
And Campbell also hopes that repealing Section 141 will prompt change. During his time at Westminster could he spot those who were close to the edge? “There have been people, and not just in the Labour Party. I’m not going to name anyone, but you’d be surprised at the sorts of people who have come to talk to me, and said: ‘I think I might have a problem. What do you think?’ And two or three of those I have pointed in the direction of medical help. If one in four is true in the country, then why should MPs be any different?”
While he is not in the business of “telling other people what to do”, Campbell says that talking about his own experiences has helped him as much as others. “I am a great believer in getting something good out of something bad,” he says.
A few months ago, the Sunday Express launched its own Crusade for Better Mental Health to bring Britain’s biggest taboo out of the shadows. And it has been inundated with thousands of letters from families battling with mental health problems.
Their stories are sometimes inspirational, often heartbreaking, occasionally alarming. Almost all, however, have included thanks to the newspaper for its bid to bring such a difficult and pervasive issue out into the open.
Often accused of being out of touch, taking the lead in a national debate on mental health, with personal stories as well as policy initiatives, would allow politicians to speak about an issue that effects millions of lives and plays havoc with our fragile economy. According to the Centre for Mental Health, the cost of mental health illnesses is £105bn, and the cost to business alone is £26bn, the equivalent of £1,000 for every worker in the country.
Our prisons are crammed with offenders who need treatment as much as punishment. Hundreds of soldiers return from the frontline damaged below the surface, and our workplaces strain with the mental toll taken by pay freezes, job cuts and growing workloads.
Self-harm is a near-epidemic among teenagers. A generation of jobless youth battle the “black dog” of depression, and desperate, frightened families are tossed around by a patchwork system of mental health care. The need to bring mental health issues to the top of the political agenda is as obvious as it is compelling, particularly as the World Health Organisation projects that by 2020 depression will become the world’s second most devastating illness, behind heart disease.
The Sunday Express wants MPs to lead an open and honest debate about its silent spread, not just across society but also through the chambers of the House. Backing the campaign, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg says:
“As a society, we still don’t talk about it. Too often these experiences are swept under the carpet, dealt with behind closed doors. Britain is an open and compassionate nation, but we Brits are a private people, too, often preferring to put on a brave face rather than asking for help.”
The coalition has made policy strides, rolling out its mental health strategy with the ultimate aim of putting Britain’s Cinderella service on a par with health treatment for physical problems. Ministers are advocating modern ‘talking therapies’ that will help one million more people by 2014. There is more support for soldiers, and programmes designed for the young, as half of those who suffer mental health problems do so before the age of 14.
However, what message does it send to the country if MPs say it’s all right for you to talk about your mental health problems, while staying silent about their own? Imagine the power behind a revelation that a senior politician battled and beat mental illness.
The Scandinavian countries have the best books, the best political dramas, and also, it seems, the best approach to mental health problems: honesty.
In the summer of 1998 Norway’s former prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik, “hit the wall”. Physically and mentally exhausted, he lay in his bed in his mountain retreat, contemplating resignation while panicked aides tried to work up a cover story.
Then Bondevik hit upon a novel strategy – telling the truth. He told his colleagues he was taking time out to deal with depression. He battled and beat the illness, returned to work, went on to be re-elected for a reforming second term, and left office with his country enjoying an economic boom.
And Bondevik believes his depression taught him to be a better politician and a better man. He told MPs during a trip to Westminster last year: “I hit the wall. That did something to me, as a human being and as a politician. The three weeks that followed were the worst in my life. But I am not sure I would like to be without those three weeks.”
If politicians are as fond of transparency as they claim to be, it’s time to shine a light on the black-dog battles being secretly waged in Westminster.
Kirsty Buchanan is political editor of the Sunday Express