MPs’ courage will help challenge the stigma of mental health problems
The politicians who spoke of their own experiences during a House of Commons debate should be warmly applauded.
The debate took place in the context of a private member’s bill, introduced by Gavin Barwell, that proposes significant revisions of legislation whereby “mentally disordered persons” (that’s anyone on any form of psychiatric medication) are ineligible for jury service. It is very difficult to challenge discrimination in the workplace, for example, when such anomalies remain in place at the heart of our legal system, and as such the proposals contained in the bill are long overdue and extraordinarily welcome.
Likewise, section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983, under which an MP automatically loses their seat if they are detained under the act for more than six months, would be repealed under Barwell’s mental health (discrimination) bill. There is no equivalent provision to remove an MP who is hospitalised, or otherwise unable to perform their role, as a consequence of long-term physical illness.
The bill also puts forward proposals to amend regulations relating to the mental health of company directors and those preventing people like me, who have been detained under the Mental Health Act, from becoming school governors. These last two laws date, by the way, not from the Middle Ages but 2008 and 2007 respectively. Shameful, isn’t it?
Amending legislation is enormously important but it won’t in itself get rid of the stigma that brought it into being in the first place. That takes the courage of individuals such as the four MPs who stood up and spoke openly about their own experiences of mental health problems, Charles Walker, Kevan Jones, Sarah Wollaston (pictured below) and Andrea Leadsom. And I use the word “courage” advisedly. It takes courage for anyone to talk publicly about their experience of mental illness. Not because mental health problems are anything to be ashamed of but because of the levels of ignorance and stigma.
In the minds of far too many people, mental illness is associated with weakness, self-indulgence, incompetence, stupidity, unreliability, and even physical and sexual violence. They may not openly admit it, of course, and they will doubtless exclude anyone they know, but it comes out in the casual asides.
The references to “nutters”, for example, the suggestion that someone should “get a grip”, or the alarm that went round a local park at proposals to build a mental health unit overlooking it. “I mean, I don’t mind myself, but what about the children?” What about them, exactly?
Mental health problems are by and large invisible to the outside world, unlike the colour of one’s skin or being in a wheelchair. Given the levels of prejudice, it is hardly surprising that many people with mental health problems choose to keep quiet about it.
For MPs, dependent for their seats on the votes of thousands of individuals, in the privacy of the polling booth, public disclosure of mental health problems is tremendously courageous. A confidential survey of MPs conducted in 2008 revealed that one in five had experienced mental health problems. It seems fair to conclude that a great many more than the four MPs who spoke up could have done so. Which is not to condemn those who chose to remain silent, but rather to illustrate the extent of the problem and to recognise properly the achievement of those who managed to find a voice.
Because, make no mistake, it is people like these who little by little are changing the status quo. It’s like trying to shift an enormous rock. The first few individuals may seem to achieve little more than a badly strained back. But as more and more people commit to the effort, the momentum suddenly shifts, and before long the boulder of stigma is rolling, faster as more and more people join in, faster and faster, clearing a path, bigots leaping out of the way, faster and faster it rolls down the mountain, until with one enormous splash, it lands at the bottom of the sea.
• Clare Allan is an author and writer on mental health issues
LINK: Guardian Newspaper: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/jul/03/mental-health-stigma-mps-courage?newsfeed=true