Suzie Vestri: An open mind can end stigma of mental ill-health
Published in Scotland on Sunday on 24 June 2012 02:56
LAST week saw a parliamentary milestone. In a backbench debate at Westminster, four Members of Parliament, all representing constituencies south of the Border, spoke openly about their personal experience of mental ill-health, breaking a silence which has helped to bolster the myth that people “at the top” don’t get mental illness.
Why should our MPs have been so quiet up until now? The reasons, I believe, are to do with current legislation, as well as a culture that affects most of our leaders, whether in the political, professional or business world.
Under the Mental Health Act (2003), the seat of any Member of Parliament who needs to be detained in hospital because of mental illness, for a period of more than six months, automatically becomes vacant. Now it may be argued by some that it is unfair to leave constituents without adequate representation in the House – even if their MP can fulfil many of his or her duties from hospital – but the issue here is one of discrimination. There is no equal provision to lose one’s seat because of any other form of illness or incapacity.
If one in four of us will have mental ill-health in any year then that figure would include 162 MPs, and 15 of these from Scottish seats. Even supposing none of them were ever to be detained under the Act, there are still many parliamentarians with an illness which carries a specific stigma. This Act, passed by Westminster, also affects members of the Scottish Parliament. Our MSPs – who have been so supportive of the need to end mental health discrimination – are also subject to the same outdated legislation. Similar laws also mean that some people with mental illness cannot be company directors or members of juries.
What these laws do is to create a cloak of silence over our elected leaders within which the issue of mental illness cannot be shared or spoken. The fact that our politicians dare not speak about it reinforces a belief that it is only permissible for some people to be that one in four. Not those people who make laws affecting our lives, run our companies or pass verdict in court. And if they don’t, or daren’t, speak out; how can we?
At a world conference on mental health discrimination in Ottawa earlier this month, the Canadian minister for Labour, Lisa Raitt, spoke about her own experiences of mental illness. It was clear that she had been nervous about being open with colleagues and asking for help because she was afraid of stigma. In fact the opposite had been true and she was able to say: “I do believe that attitudes can change, and I am living proof of that.”
Kjell Magne Bondevik was the Norwegian prime minister, widely praised for highlighting issues of mental health in the political arena. He said: “It happened one Sunday in August 1998. I was not able to get out of my bed. I did not have any energy left in me. I stand here today because I became more aware and had a strong experience that day. I hit the wall. That did something to me – as a human being and as a politician.” He announced that he needed to take a short break and he left his deputy in charge.
After three weeks the prime minister returned to work to carry out the remainder of his term. He was also re-elected a few years later. Perhaps Norwegians were pleased that he had raised the issue of mental illness so publicly.
At last the tide of parliamentary opinion in the UK is beginning to turn. Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, has announced that he will use his Private Members’ Bill to repeal the relevant sections of the Mental Health Act (2003), the Juries Act 1974 and the Companies (Model Articles) Regulations 2008.
Until now, politicians have been silent on this issue while celebrities, footballers and ordinary people have become increasingly open about mental health. It has been up to Alastair Campbell, who worked at the heart of Downing Street for many years and is now well known as a mental health campaigner in England, to speak up about mental health and politics.
Kevan Jones MP (North Durham) was one of the four MPs who spoke out in the Commons debate. He said: “Politics is a rough old game ... but having to admit that you need help is not a weakness”.
Open-ness can help recovery and often generates unexpected support. It is only when those in positions of leadership in public life can be open about their mental health that we can expect wider attitudes in society to change for the better.