Ben Brittain is a Conservative activist and works in mental health services.
Ken Livingstone recently went on air to publicise his recent appointment as Co-Chair to Labour’s Trident and Defence Policy Review Board. Whilst on air, the former London Mayor launched an attack on a Labour MP. Livingstone said that Kevan Jones should seek ‘psychiatric help,’ and should ‘pop off to see his GP’. What he advertised, before his eventual apology, was not his recent appointment but rather the painful feature of mental health stigma – not only in political circles, but in the wider narrative of society.
Discrimination and stigma is an unfortunate and unnecessary additional burden for those with a mental health problem. The stigma is often unforgiving of what diagnosis and difficulty you have, whether reactive depression or acute psychosis. To society, it doesn’t matter; you still have a ‘mental’ problem, and as such warrant the stigma that impedes recovery and stifles social acceptance. The casual mocking by Ken Livingstone is unhelpful to those within society that receive such discrimination daily.
Importantly, Kevan Jones MP, who was on the receiving end of Livingstone’s mental health discrimination, has courageously spoken out about his depression - as Winston Churchill did. Churchill’s affective disorders (his ‘Black Dog’) were unhealthily repressed with champagne and cigars. Efforts to develop a constructive social discourse on mental health, where shame doesn’t lead to substance addiction or indeed suicide, has been undermined by Ken Livingstone’s mockery.
The irony is that it comes from a Labour Party which claims to be the political champion of sufferers of mental health. Recently, Corbyn emphasised the growing mental health crisis and alleged that Conservatives were harming those in need, whereas Labour was offering hope to them. Livingstone’s comments show that this is a policy domain that Labour cannot hold easily.
The Conservatives can make progress here – and, more importantly they must. Research has given us an indication of what assists in the recovery of those with anxiety, depression and psychotic spectrum disorders. Out of a large cohort, with large sets of data, across research projects all over the world, the WHO found that one of the main things that contribute to the recovery of mental health populations is employment.
In own experience of working on the frontline of a mental health youth service, I see that recovery from schizophrenia is often a long and painful journey for the young people I help to support and care for. But, when clinical symptoms have become manageable, what helps rebuild confidence, a sense of worthiness and a belief in belonging is getting up every morning with purpose and the company of others to look forward to it. I witnessed the fantastic work that the Third Sector does in supporting NHS trusts in providing a broad package of care. The Prince’s Trust, for example, provides educational and vocational courses, as well as on-the-job placements.
It is not dispassionate to want those with mental health to find employment; it is the most compassionate way in which services could support them. Because for those individuals, their recovery only truly begins when they start once again to engage with society – when they are accepted not by the sum of their diagnosis, but as ordinary, working, human beings.
That’s why I believe the Conservatives are best placed to tackle the rising problem of mental health. Mental health can be a truly compassionate conservative policy domain, through emancipation from a bio-medical, psychoactive prescriptive mode of treating mental health, to one that is inclusive of social factors, such as the involvement of third sector and private companies to offer employment support and training.