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MPs shine a bright light on mental health

15 June 2012

I applaud the MPs who stood up yesterday and disclosed their very personal mental health stories in a bid to address the stigma and discrimination that Forster has been developing campaigns around for over a decade (including Mindout and Time to Change).

I am hopeful that this may be the tipping point for addressing this issue – don’t underestimate it, it was a historic debate that took place in Parliament yesterday.

Yesterday was unprecedented because of the courage of the MPs who spoke so openly and movingly about their own personal experiences. . It is enormously important to have MPs aware of, and supportive of people affected by mental health problems – not only those who directly experience the condition but family, friends and colleagues. Yet let’s not forget, their bravery mirrors those of many other unsung heroes who on a daily basis brush aside the stigma of mental health to talk about the issues. Hopefully this will help others to speak out.

Being open about mental health is critical if we are to achieve change. Evidence shows that change in public attitudes happens when ordinary people talk openly about their experience demonstrating that mental health problems are not something that happens to ‘them’ over there, but to any of ‘us’. Change in treatment and services also requires openness in order that interventions can be better designed, delivered and appraised to ensure that they suit the actual experiences people have. And if society is more open about mental health then those affected are more likely to seek help earlier, thereby raising the chance of a quicker and longer-term recovery.

That is why I hope that we can build on the excellent momentum that was created in yesterday’s debate in two key ways:

  • As debated yesterday, by the abolition of laws barring people with severe mental health problems from holding key public roles. Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, has introduced a private members bill to do just this and it is critical that he pushes this bill through in order to send a  strong message that discrimination is intolerable.
  • I would also go a step further to say we need people with an experience of mental health problems in such roles in order to better reflect the diversity of society and to make better decisions on issues that effect and affect mental health. I hope this will then encourage a large raft of public, not-for-profit and private sector organisations to ensure that they to enable this representation on their Executive Boards, and a commitment to consider the mental health of their stakeholders.
  • There needs to be a significant investment in improving the life chances of people with mental health problems by investing in research so that we can gather evidence about what works. Despite the 1 in 4 affected by mental health problems, and that an estimated 30-40% of GPs time is spent managing mental health problems, there’s a paucity of medical or social research. The Medical Research Council spent £758.2 million on medical research in 2009/10. Just £25.7m (3.4%) of this was on research about mental health. This is woefully inadequate.

Mental health needs to have parity with physical health, which means in all those places where physical health is represented, the same needs to apply to mental health.

Ten years ago, Alastair Campbell (whose blog can be found here) was the first voice from Westminster to speak openly about his mental health problems yet since then his voice has been a virtually lone one. We must not let this happen again today.

Can we now translate a greater profile for the issue into genuine changes in commitment to, and investment in, positive changes? The debate has given me renewed optimism.