“Historic” was the word Andy Burnham used to describe yesterday’s House of Commons debate on mental health. It’s an overused word, but for once it’s no overstatement. Not just because of the widespread support across all the political parties for removing the archaic law which prevents people who have had severe mental health problems from being jurors, MPs or company directors – important though that is. It was also historic for the way that MPs from across the political spectrum talked frankly about their own experience of poor mental health.
After weeks where politicians have been portrayed in a frequently negative light during the Leveson Enquiry, it was a relief to see them at their best in the debate, showing true leadership and courage. Poor mental health is still incredibly stigmatised in our society, and many people feel unable to discuss it with employers, colleagues and even friends, often leading to their condition worsening. So politicians like Kevan Jones, Charles Walker and Sarah Wollaston deserve congratulations for speaking about their mental health with such honesty.
They join many other well known figures who have taken risks in recent years in an attempt to combat prejudice around mental health, people like Stephen Fry and Alastair Campbell. But there are also thousands of less well known people in less prestigious jobs who also experience poor mental health and who are also showing courage in speaking out and offering their support to others like them.
Just take a look at the fantastic website, Blurt. This is a public space where people talk about their mental health openly, also providing an online mentoring service for those with depression and those affected by depression,including carers, friends and family. Its goal is to show people that they are not alone and that there are thousands of others who understand what it is like to struggle with mental health issues. After all, it is estimated that 1 in 4 of us experience poor mental health at some point.
There is of course a long way to go before taboos around mental health are fully stripped away, and mental health problems are understood in the same way as physical health problems, as conditions which can be treated or alleviated, and do not define the person experiencing them. But yesterday was a bold and bright start in that direction, an example which all of us should recognise and try to follow.
By Jaime Gill, head of press and public affairs