Thursday, June 14, 2012

Kevan Jones and Charles Walker talk about their mental health problems

I spent this afternoon live tweeting a House of Commons debate on my work Twitter account (follow #mentalhealthdebate to see what everyone was saying about it - and read the whole thing on They Work for You.)

The debate was called by the House's backbench business committee and was remarkable because two MPs had the courage to speak about their own mental health problems.

First, a little hesitantly, it was Kevan Jones:
Now I am going to throw my notes away—I thought long and hard last night about whether to do this—and talk about my own mental health problems. 1n 1996, I suffered quite a deep depression related to work and other things going on in my life. This is the first time I have spoken about this. Indeed, some people in my family do not know about what I am going to talk about today. Like a lot of men, I tried to deal with it myself—you do not talk to people. I hope you realise, Mr Speaker, that what I am saying is very difficult for me. ...
It is hard, because you do not always recognise the symptoms. It creeps up very slowly. Also, we in politics tend to think that if we admit to fault or failure we will be looked on disparagingly by the electorate and our peers. Whether my having made this admission will mean that the possibility of any future ministerial career is blighted for ever for me, I do not know. I was a Minister in the previous Government and I think that most people on both sides of the House thought I did a reasonable job. 
We have to talk about mental health issues in this place, including people in the House who have personal experience of it. As I have said, I thought long and hard last night about doing this and I did not come to a decision until I put my notes down just now. Whether it affects how people view me, I do not know; and frankly I do not care because if it helps other people who have depression or who have suffered from it in the past, then, good. 
Politics is a rough old game, and I have no problem with that. Indeed, I am, perhaps, one of the roughest at times, but having to admit that you need help sometimes is not a sign of weakness.
And then, flamboyantly it was Charles Walker:
It is absolutely fantastic to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I was a researcher here in the early 1990s and a few Members present were here at that time. They will remember the debates about homosexuality. There were some discriminations, as there still are, in relation to homosexuality, and people were beginning to feel very uncomfortable about that. Many colleagues came to this place to take part in those debates, and they would say, “These discriminations against homosexuals are disgraceful, but I am not gay myself.” They did not want to be perceived as gay because they had an interest in those matters. 
I am delighted to say that I have been a practising fruitcake for 31 years. It was 31 years ago at St John’s Wood tube station—I remember it vividly—that I was visited by obsessive compulsive disorder. Over the past 31 years, it has played a fairly significant part in my life. On occasions it is manageable and on occasions it becomes quite difficult. It takes one to some quite dark places.
He went on, sometimes making his condition sound almost comic:
I operate to the rule of four, so I have to do everything in evens. I have to wash my hands four times and I have to go in and out of a room four times. My wife and children often say I resemble an extra from “Riverdance” as I bounce in and out of a room, switching lights off four times. Woe betide me if I switch off a light five times because then I have to do it another three times. Counting becomes very important. 
I leave crisp and biscuit packets around the house because if I go near a bin, my word, I have to wash my hands on numerous occasions. There has to be an upside to a mental health problem. I thought that the upside would be that I would not get colds, because apparently if you wash your hands a lot, you don’t get colds, but I wash my hands hundreds of times a day and I get extremely cheesed off when I end up with a heavy cold.
And at times making it clear how horrific it can be:
I was on holiday recently and I took a beautiful photograph of my son carrying a fishing rod—hon. Members may know that I love fishing. There was my beautiful son carrying a fishing rod, I was glowing with pride and then the voice started, “If you don’t get rid of that photograph, your child will die.” You fight those voices for a couple or three hours and you know that you really should not give into them because they should not be there and it ain’t going to happen, but in the end, you are ain’t going to risk your child, so one gives into the voices and then feels pretty miserable about life.
The two MPs are to be commended for their courage - the parallel Walker drew with coming out as gay 20 years ago is surely an accurate one.

I am sure that their disclosures will not harm their careers. Indeed, I have a feeling that Charles Walker's remarkable speech today will be the making of him.

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