I read the article by Kirsty Buchanan on 'Politicians and their black dog days' with great interest. Living life in the public spotlight, being on call via email and mobile phone pretty much 24/7, being regularly attacked on a very personal level, working 70-hour weeks, grabbing snacks when you can, being away from your family on a regular basis, is a recipe for disaster – and yet this is pretty much the life of a Member of Parliament. It is not surprising that many probably have low-level mental health problems or depression and some find themselves in a much more difficult place. We do have a support network of sorts, though, because there are 650 of us all doing the same job, where at least we understand the nature of the problem someone is facing.
However, we are not unique. This happens all the time to people in other walks of life, to victims of crime and their families and we know from the evidence how damaging it can be for someone in an already fragile state. MPs really are not that dissimilar from the rest of the population but our lives are conducted in a very public way. Very few MPs would dare admit publicly that they had a problem. In the case of MPs there is legislation which could see them removed from their job because of severe mental illness. It is outdated and it should change.
MPs do understand how easy it is to drift from low levels of depression into a full blown problem with your mental health. We meet people in our constituencies on a very regular basis whose lives are dysfunctional, who are really struggling for all sorts of reasons and who need support both emotional and practical. Whether someone is sitting in Westminster, serving on the front line in a war zone, typing in an office in Birmingham or operating machinery on a factory floor, if you need support in your workplace you should receive it. You certainly shouldn’t be stigmatised by asking for it either.
However, I am not wholly convinced by the arguments which say that simply by MPs standing up and saying I have suffered depression or mental illness we will see an increase in legislation. I am not convinced that there would be much public sympathy either and the cynics would say that we were only doing it to attract attention to ourselves.
I genuinely do not think there is an MP who isn’t aware of a rising level of mental illness in the wider population. Our growing caseload is evidence of that because many of the issues raised with us have a knock-on effect to the general well being and mental health of the people who approach us. This is reflected in the debates we have at Westminster. Many more discussions and debates in both Houses of Parliament have references to mental health. Quite simply, we MPs should, because of the weight of evidence in our postbags, be giving greater prominence to the issue of mental health.
Alison Seabeck is the Labour MP for Plymouth Moore View and a member of the all-party parliamentary group on mental health. Read more contributions to TP's mental health week here