MPs on Mental Health: Almost Human After All?

BBC Parliament used to mean little more to me than the sight of several hundred MPs honking and snorting their way through Prime Ministers Questions like a herd of Wildebeest on a legal high-fest.

But yesterday’s Mental Health debate was a curious beast. In fact, as a ‘general’ debate it was neither adversarial nor even mildly confrontational. In fact, it was more or less a small bunch of MPs from all sides of the house talking a lot of sense and being nice to each other.

In fact, it went even further than that. It turns out Alastair Campbell isn’t the only case of mad pride in the Westminster Village. Kevan James opened the theatre by throwing down his pre-prepared notes, clearing his throat and revealing an experience with severe depression hitherto hidden from all but his closest family.

Charles Walker followed up with a superb stand-up based on his own long history of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, describing himself as a ‘thirty year fruitcake’ with seemingly bizarre number-based rituals and even the odd voice in his head commanding him to delete a digital photo or face the certain
death of his son.

In fact, just as I was thinking the BBC had got it all wrong and planted their cameras in the Commons weekly self-help group, #mentalhealthdebate started to trend on Twitter. And a small group of MPs decided to forego the spectacle of Dave dodging the now telegraphed punches of Leveson in favour of a debate featuring, in no particular order, resilience, IAPT, self-referrals, care pathways, mentally ill prisoners, police involvement, stigma, advocacy, over-prescribing of psychotropic drugs, recovery models, recovery colleges and (more than once) the appallingly poor morbidity of the long-term mentally ill.

Andrea Leadsom and Sarah Wollaston talked about their own experiences of desperation, severe anxiety and suicidal thoughts following the birth of their children. Shocked? Amazed? Yes, me too.

And just in case you were beginning to think this was all getting a bit ‘bean bags and whale music’ for our Upper Chamber, along came the announcement of a Private Members Bill on Mental Health Discrimination. Croydon MP Gavin Barwell talked of the stigma and injustice of laws such as the Mental Health Act’s Section 141, which removes MPs from office after 6 months of detention. Yes,it’s obscure and has never been invoked. But as Mr Barwell pointed out it’s up there together with legislative barriers to jury service and company directorships for the mentally ill as a piece of archaic symbolism long past it’s sell-by date.

Now I don’t know much of how these parliamentary thingies work, but it would seem cheerleader in chief of this most surprising and groundbreaking of days in the Upper House was Loughborough MP Nicky Morgan. She had apparently fought not only for parliamentary time but for the venue to be the Chamber itself and not Committee Room 4b or some other dark and forgotten recess of the Palace of Westminster. And in both introducing and summing up the debate, she along with many of her political peers currently receiving all the public adulation of the childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang spoke more intelligently, authoritatively and compassionately about mental health than I’ve heard from many a professional.

As Ms Morgan put it much better than I could myself: “All of us have mental health, it’s just some people’s is better than others.”

Remarkable.