The other day, something revolutionary happened from Croydon – something revolutionary that ought to inform every debate at the upcoming Conservative conference. Gavin Barwell, the MP for Croydon Central, brought his private members bill, which seeks to outlaw discrimination against people who have experienced mental ill health, back to the House.
The bill seeks to change current rules which outlaw those who have recovered from mental ill-health becoming MPs and jurors. It was only in February this year that this right was afforded to school governors. Ministers tweeted that they had found time to pop along to support amidst their busy schedules and the opposition’s Diane Abbott joined in with bi-partisan encouragement. But all those who spoke also noted things would have to go much further.
No wonder – for if they had listened to parents they would have heard of the devastating impact of mental ill-health on children, as well as stories of grandparents and siblings suddenly called on, too, to cope with new caring duties. I heard recently of a young girl in an isolated part of the Isle of Wight who, on being sectioned under the Mental Health Act, had to be moved at NHS expense to a far-away private psychiatric unit, since no support could be found not only on the island but in the whole south-east. Her parents could not afford to visit her. In many areas a teenager being discharged from such a specialist unit and not well enough to study or work could expect almost no support other than a twelve-week scheme run by the Prince’s Trust.
Searching more widely, MPs would have found churches that will not promote those who have had a breakdown, firms that will not recruit them and even constituency associations for whom a mental collapse is the clearest of reasons to reject a potential candidate. All this is underpinned in many cases by local authority and DWP staff, who do not know the difference between autism and schizophrenia, severe depression and downs syndrome or between the refusal to answer a question because of fiddling benefits and silence induced by extreme anxiety.
A child who has been mugged may experience auditory or visual hallucinations so intense that it is as though their attacker is in the room, threatening them even while they are seemingly safe at home. A child with bi-polar disorder may believe he can fly – and be found by parents at the top of a multi-storey car park. The father of a young schizophrenic may find his lad struggling to grasp that his dad is on his side, rather than an alien who is shouting at him in the night or who has come to murder him. And a teenager with anorexia whose heart has shrunk to a third of its natural size is not just another patient, but a beloved child whose parents will always be thinking of them no matter what they are up to.
In all of these cases, parents will only survive if their employer and others can step up to social responsibility. The flexible backing they need requires spending not to be focused only on prevention. It also means making sure that Clinical Commissioning Groups don't measure provision for these parents simply by using generic statistics of "patient churn’". The Conservative Party should combat the culture of silence and stigma that surrounds mental ill health with a ten year-long campaign of compassion. For despite stunning moments such as Charles Walker’s brave description of living with manageable obsessive compulsive disorder, it is increasingly hard to hear the voices of those who have come through.
Will Grant Shapps announce in Birmigham that he is actively seeking candidates who share experiences such as Charles Walker’s? Will George Osborne insulate those with the severest conditions from the avalanche of reductions in benefits that he is allegedly seeking to unleash? How will Jeremy Hunt account for Andrew Lansley’s 3% cut in NHS mental health spending? Or could Justine Greening refocus the aid budget so as to eradicate the habit of some countries to reach for automatic imprisonment of the mentally ill rather than include their needs in the development of new health systems? This issue touches every department of state.
Which is why Barwell’s bill is so encouraging. While concreting over the countryside, runways and high-speed trains preoccupy the long-term vision of some, his bill demonstrates the kind of concrete improvement that is social justice in action. It shows that the social conscience of parliament is alive and well – not least when considered alongside the work of others like David Burrowes and Lord Carlile in the mental health arena. It shows that even at a time of fiscal rectitude there is space for specific innovations. And, most crucially, it offers a revolution of hope to those families who do not today have an MP or local decision-maker for whom these most vulnerable of citizens are yet a priority. If something socially revolutionary can happen from Croydon, why not elsewhere?