Having recently been diagnosed with depression, I decided to attend my local hustings on mental health. Feeling every bit of the substance induced anxiety from the early stages of medication, I made my way into the packed out church hall to sit amongst my community, making our individual illnesses a relevant and political topic of discussion. I felt anxious.
I decided to face up to my illness, when it started having a negative impact on my life and my relationships, and it was only a natural step for me to try and understand mental health within a political context.
The panel consisted of Stephen Doughty, the Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth, Jenny Willott, the Liberal Democrat MP for Cardiff Central, Bethan Jenkins, the Plaid Cymru Assembly member, Anthony Metcalfe, director of Time to Change Wales and Dr Menna Jones, consultant and clinical psychologist. The Tories and UKIP were also invited to take part, but failed to respond to invitations. With a panel of healthcare professionals, as well as politicians, I felt that the organisers achieved a good balance between those with knowledge of mental health and our political representatives, whose job it is to politicise these issues. However, with the time allocated for the session, the inflated panel, large audience and questions having been submitted prior to the event, it was clear that there was not going to be enough time to have an in depth discussion on the subject.
The chair and organiser, James, asked the panel the first question:
Why did you want to come tonight and what does mental health mean to you?
Stephen (Labour) talked about his experience of having a mental health illness, generalised anxiety disorder, and felt the issue of stigma needed to be tackled. That it is a medical condition, like any physical impairment and therefore there should be parity in the way they are treated. To be fair, Stephen seemed to have a long term genuine interest in ensuring mental health is treated seriously, which was evident from his anecdotes about his personal experience and the experiences of those who are close to him.
Jenny (Lib Dem) was clearly inexperienced and seemed to have very little knowledge of mental health issues. The first thing she said was that she considers herself very lucky to have never had a mental health illness, to a room full of people who have experienced mental health issues, either directly or indirectly. A friend said over dinner that evening, that she wasn’t sure why Jenny felt the need to tell us all that. Mind you, it was clear what her agenda was from the start: keeping people with mental health illnesses in work. This was a running theme throughout her contributions to the debate, throughout the evening. As an employer, with some limited experience working with an employee with mental health issues, she spoke of the importance of keeping people in work.
Bethan (Plaid) talked about how mental health is important, because it effects everyday life and how we experience the world around us, how we approach things and how there should be a holistic approach when dealing with and treating physical and mental health conditions. That they are very much linked. She talked about how she is involved in working with people with anorexia, and how this is an issue close to her heart. An understanding of both mental and physical health being linked resonated with my own experience of mental health. A coping strategy of mine has been to refrain from eating properly, which leads to weight and hair loss. Bethan then touched upon possible structural causes of mental health illnesses in women and girls, such as gender representation in the media and the need to take a stance against sexist lad magazines in our unions and on our campuses.
Anthony (Time to Change Wales) said that 1 in 4 people experience mental health problems in their lifetime. This was informative, and an issue in and of itself in terms of appropriate service provision. However, the pertinent question is why? Partially addressed later on in the meeting by the audience, the professional on the panel brought little in the way of addressing the root causes of mental health conditions.
Dr Menna Jones wanted to take the opportunity of hearing from the audience about how to improve services, so that she can inform her practice.
The next question was:
How do we tackle institutional discrimination?
Bethan spoke about GPs refusing to go on mental health training courses, arguing that training should be part of their service level agreements and should not be optional or financially incentivised.
Anthony told us about the organisational pledge, which organisations across Wales can sign up to, to develop realistic and manageable action plans, with achievable goals. The onus is on the organisation to design their own plan, with the agreement, guidance and support of Time to Change Wales. He also spoke of the fear of having these conversations, because people don’t know what to say, or how to react when faced with dealing with mental health issues.
Jenny spoke of educating employers about the benefits of keeping people with mental health illnesses in work, and how work is part of the recovery process. Although, I am not sure how she jumped to this conclusion, considering she didn’t really seem to know much about mental health conditions and by implication, she seemed to be advocating a one fits all approach to mental health illness recovery. She also spoke of employers becoming advocates for good practice in the workplace and that there should be parity of esteem between physical and mental health.
A member of the audience then highlighted the obstacles accessing mental health services, when there has been an 8% reduction in specialist mental health services, that he personally had to wait 7 weeks for a telephone assessment, and 4 weeks to be seen by Mind.
Dr Menna Jones responded by saying that people are in the system at the point of diagnosis, and that from this point there are safeguards in place, to ensure that no one is lost in the system. What this means in practice though is unclear and she didn’t expand upon her point. I’m sure there are safeguards built into the system, but this was the time to discuss what they are and their strengths and weaknesses, whether there are staffing issues, and cuts in services among other things, considering the political context and point of having a question time in the run up to an election. Why else would the organisers invite leading politicians, standing for Parliament, to a discussion about mental health, if not to advocate for the improvement of services and hope that the experts are able to offer workable solutions to the problems encountered by service users.
Stephen talked about Labour ring-fencing NHS funding in Wales and their commitment to employing a thousand more doctors and nurses, by putting in place a mansion tax to raise the revenue required to implement the proposal. He also talked about the detrimental effects of youth service cuts on young people.
Jenny decided mental health issues isn’t a political issue! She actually said that she was not going to make the discussion political, because that doesn’t help. We had a bit of a laugh about this later on in the evening, when a friend mentioned that considering she is a politician, it is her duty to make it a political issue, because that is what is expected of her. Considering she was my MP up until last month, I really hope we see the back of her after the general election.
Stephen talked about how funding does matter and cuts in England matter. He talked about the privatisation of the NHS and made links between the lack of GP mental health expertise, and how GP commissioning groups decide the best course of action for patients in England.
Bethan talked about attacks on youth services and how welfare reform should be devolved, so the people in Wales can decide what is best for the people in Wales.
There was at least a hundred people in the audience, and many spoke of their experiences with service provision, which many felt was inadequate, due to time delays mainly. But others spoke about the welfare reforms, benefit sanctions and bedroom tax having a negative impact on people’s lives, making life more difficult for those with metal health conditions. Although these issues were touched upon by the audience, I don’t think they were fully fleshed out and dealt with by the panel, leaving so many unanswered questions by our politicians and experts in the field, that we are pushing vulnerable people into poverty, the disabled off benefits. If as Bethan says, your mental health effects how we experience life, then what about how life effects our mental health?
Written by Kat Burdon-Manley