The most important thing going on in Parliament this week…

Forget the EU referendum faffery and PMQs. When people wake up in the morning, their first thoughts are unlikely to be anything to do with the internal wranglings within the Conservative Party or any  sort of parliamentary panto. They will be to do with their health or thir job or any other problems they or their family face.

However, at 11:30 or thereabouts today, MPs will talk about something that most people will find real and relevant. There’s a backbench debate on mental health. I doubt it will be as powerful and intense as the debate we had at Scottish Conference in March where many people shared their experience of mental health problems faced by themselves or their families. It was particularly moving to hear a 16 year old describe the effect of her Depression. She said she would have preferred hell, purgatory or death to what she was going through – which led her to take an overdose.

For Nick Clegg, improving mental health has always been of paramount importance. It was the subject of his first major speech as Liberal Democrat leader and as Deputy Prime Minister he has done much to expand the availability of talking therapies, providing treatment for  half a million people. He’s also been a huge supporter of the Time for Change campaign.

I was particularly moved by the interview with Katherine Welby, the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who yesterday spoke to BBC Breakfast about her Depression. If you haven’t seen it, you can catch up with it here.  “I’ve always really struggled with me,” she said. I wish someone like her had been around when I was a teenager and struggling with exactly the same thing, to tell me that I was ill, not flawed and that it would pass. I’ve had 3 major bouts of Depression in my life, but in between times it occasionally slaps me round the chops to remind me that it’s there.  If I have learned anything these past 35 years, it’s that no matter how strongly it has you in your grip, it will eventually pass, even when you think it doesn’t. Unsurprisingly, it passes more quickly if you have access to the best health care. I’ve always been lucky to have been given what I needed when I needed it.

Recognise the warning signs

There are two things from the Scottish mental health debate that I’d like MPs to consider today. The first was raised by Ewan Hoyle in a compelling speech about his brother’s schizophrenia which he has published in full here. He says young people need to be taught to recognise when their mental health may be deteriorating and know how to seek help. We all know how to check for breast cancer or to recognise the signs of bowel cancer, but we don’t talk about what happens when our mental health goes wrong as Ewan said:

Schizophrenia is a condition that can render young people a traumatising burden for the rest of their lives. It usually first appears in someone’s late teens or early twenties, and it affects approximately 1% of the population. Why, why are we not preparing school children for the distinct possibility themselves, a family member, or friend, might start to lose their grip on rationality and reality. Why are we leaving families open to this devastating impact, that sets off a chain reaction of pain, anguish and mental ill health that ricochets wildly through our society.

I’ve said this to a UK government health minister’s face and I’ll say it again to you today. I would have given all my As for the knowledge to identify the warning signs of my brother’s impending deterioration. The knowledge that could allow me to do the right thing in good time to allow him to cling on to reality and eventually return to a chance at happiness and fulfilment. Why do we spend hours teaching the fictional breakdown of Hamlet or the poems of Philip Larkin, when we could be teaching our children how to safeguard their real life mental health and how to look out for – and respond appropriately to – the deterioration of their friends and family.

Let’s talk about self harm

The second issue is to do with self harm. This is something affecting many people, particularly young people and parents, GPs and teachers often don’t have much of a clue about what to do about it. Sophie Bridger’s appeal to Conference was that we must talk about this more:

We don’t ask for help because we’re afraid of how people will react; that they will feel angry, afraid or guilty.  And those perceptions are often true. Even people who should be a source of advice for young people don’t know what to say, or how to deal with it. Half of GPs say they don’t understand people who self-harm. The majority of teachers aren’t comfortable discussing it, even when they are concerned. Parents feel guilty and totally unprepared.

The stigma around self-harm stops people seeking help. And it stops people being able to give help, too.  Until we can tackle the ignorance and misunderstanding around self-harm, this stigma will continue. And for as long as it does, there will be children in every classroom with no one to talk to and no one to help them to deal with the immense pain that drives them to hurt themselves.

If we want to stop stigma in schools, then we need to give teachers the resources to do that.  Teachers want materials to help them talk to pupils about self-harm, and pupils want to hear about it. We need more resources for GPs, as well as greater access to talking therapies for those who need them. And we need better information for parents about adolescent mental health, and self-harm, so they can try and support their children.

I suspect today’s debate will be one of those occasions when MPs of all parties show themselves at their best, taking seriously an issue that affects so many people. The fact that they are doing that helps in itself, but we need many more improvements in mental health services across the whole of the UK.

 

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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5 Comments

  • Will the affects of austerity on mental health be discussed? Will the suicide of that poor woman pushed to the edge because of the final straw of the bedroom tax be discussed? The Coalition is very quiet on that.

  • Caron is one of my most favourite bloggers, and Im really sorry to hear you’ve had depression. Its a horrible thing.

    I say should we buy more crutches, or should we STOP THAT IDIOT BREAKING PEOPLES LEGS!!!!

    In other words, we need to take a good look at the causes of mental distress, and this must include preventative measures.

  • UK mental health is worsening, and we have one of the highest rates of mental distress among EU countries. Why is this? Can something be done about it?

  • Eddie Sammon 16th May '13 - 6:56pm

    I have a few recommendations on this topic:

    1. Reduce the use of labels.
    2. What Anne and CP say about preventative measures.

  • Eddie Sammon 16th May '13 - 7:04pm

    PS, it is good that we are talking about this.

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