I welcome the article by Kirsty Buchanan in this month’s Total Politics magazine on depression among politicians. For those of us trying to tackle the stigma around mental health and to ensure mental health is discussed more broadly on the national stage and in Parliament it is important that MPs should not be afraid to ask for help with their own mental health – and then to talk about it in Parliament.
As a vice chairman of the APPG on mental health I recently joined forces with our chairman, Charles Walker MP, to ask the House of Commons backbench business committee to grant us a three-hour debate on the floor of the House of Commons to discuss mental health. After demonstrating cross-party support (many thanks to our fellow MPs, Sir Peter Bottomley, Jon Cruddas, Mark Durkan, Dr Julian Lewis, and James Morris for joining Charles and I for our second appearance before the committee) the committee has agreed that the subject should be debated. I am hopeful that the newly-elected committee will identify a time once the work of the Commons resumes a regular pattern after the Queen’s Speech. Based on my brief conversations on this in the Members' tearoom I think MPs are now ready to talk in public about their own experiences too.
MPs come across mental health issues in all sorts of guises. The primary avenue is usually via constituency casework. We are contacted to be told about good and bad examples of patient care in our local health services or via the new welfare to work assessments. But we also meet carers who are looking after loved ones with mental health conditions.
The other avenue is visiting local community groups and charities that provide services such as drop-ins or advice lines for people struggling with their mental health. I am keen to ensure that they are seen as a critical part of the new health service commissioning framework.
I was pleased to attend a recent reception, hosted by the deputy prime minister, for the Time to Change organisation. Funded by the government and Comic Relief this is a campaign working to end the stigma of mental health and to encourage more open discussion about mental health.
And, here we come back to the Total Politics article. If one in four people are likely to suffer from poor mental health at some point in their lives – why would MPs, peers and those working in Westminster be any less vulnerable? Even Winston Churchill suffered from “black dog” – often, I am told, when he had too much time on his hands.
As Kirsty Buchanan says, being an MP involves long hours in a potentially unhealthy environment, stressful work with a lot of responsibility for the welfare of constituents, competition for promotion, unforgiving press scrutiny and having to juggle family life or try to maintain some sort of private life or outside interests. Added to that, thanks to recent events including the expenses issue and a sense that the public is highly suspicious of anything we do and say, it is hard to retain a sense of why we all came into politics in the first place. Of course, there are great things about being an MP – an opportunity to champion causes on a national stage, making things happen in our constituencies, being at the centre of what is happening, helping a constituent to solve what seem like an intractable problem and working with dedicated and like-minded colleagues on all sides of the Commons.
My understanding is that loneliness and isolation can be major factors in mental health conditions such as depression. And that applies even to people who live in happy families or work in collegiate environments. It is perfectly possible to feel deeply lonely even when surrounded by other people. In fact, it can make it harder to admit that there is a problem and help is needed. Life in Westminster is, bizarrely, quite isolating. Although we can all compare notes about issues at the end of the day only one person is the MP for the constituency and they have to apply their own judgment to a problem whether it’s a tough constituency case or a community centre closing for lack of bookings and cash. So, what are THEY going to do about it ask the press and your constituents?
There is no job description for an MP so there are over 650 ways of doing the job. There is no training and no time to adjust. One night you are standing on a stage hearing the election result. And, then you are the MP and the 150 emails a day (at least) and endless post start to pour in – with probably no staff to help you reply to them initially.
Being an MP is about finding a way to make it work for you and everyone else in your life so you can do the best job possible – I ran races before I was elected and now those half hours of silence at the start of my days in London as I run next to the Thames are essential. I try to resist drinking too much coffee and the wine at functions although I still love the cooked breakfasts! While I read all my emails I try to set myself specific slots for doing so and then telling myself I have to actually get on with thinking and focusing on the issues I’ve said I’m going to major on (Higher Education, Skills, Mental Health, Athletics and Heritage Rail since you ask!)
One of the most powerful sentences I have heard since May 2010 was from a visitor to an APPG for mental health meeting. She said “We all have mental health, it’s just some people’s is better than others.” How very true. The Time to Change and anti-stigma campaigns have as much relevance to the Westminster workforce as they do to anywhere else in the UK. There is no doubt that it is time MPs debated this whole issue, and generally spoke about it more.
Nicky Morgan is the Conservative MP for Loughborough and a vice-chairman of the APPG on mental health