Mental health problems are common in society. One in four people have them, yet many suffer in silence. I knew very little about the Labour MP for Barrow in Furness John Woodcock MP when I woke up the other day. I knew that he had had a nasty accident with a ladder and had resigned from his post as Shadow Transport Secretary as a result. Over the course of the day however, I learnt a lot more.
John Woodcock MP yesterday did a brave thing. He admitted he was suffering from depression and had been prescribed anti-depressants. In the high octane adrenaline sponsored environment of Westminster, the impact of this should not be underestimated. Under the spotlight of Westminster, politicians of all stripes are never more than one step away from a camera lens, or a journalist ready to analyse and deconstruct their actions to reveal even the tiniest chink in their armoury.
When a politician acts with bravery and candour, the partisan temptation which all politicos suffer from ought to be silent. I have been impressed also by the breadth and depth of the support that John Woodcock has received from across the political spectrum. This has ranged from colleagues on all sides of the House to journalists across the political spectrum; notably perhaps a very supportive blog from Fraser Nelson at the Spectator.
As someone who has depression, I know very well what John Woodcock is experiencing right now. The first time I admitted I had depression is as clear to me now as it was when I was 16. I had been seeing a counsellor for various ongoing issues in my life and she said to me one day,
“I can’t work with you anymore. Not until the fog clears. You should go and see the doctor and talk about antidepressants.”
Even the word antidepressants put me on alert. I was only 16. Not having the nuance that being 32 gives you I confided to somebody that I was worried I would be thought of as a nutter so what John says in his excellent blog on the subject has a real resonance with me. Most of all, it is his hope that friends, family and fellow Parliamentarians will notice no difference in him as a result of popping pills.
You see that’s the thing. It would be churlish to ignore the fact that there is a stigma around depression. Firstly, the stigma arises from admitting to yourself that you have it, for it is all too often portrayed as a sign of weakness in popular culture. Secondly the stigma arises from wondering how people may react, and that is something which one cannot predict. Those of us who suffer with depression are not suddenly different people. We do not grow three heads. We are just struggling with a broken soul and would appreciate your support.
One of the problems with mental health as opposed to physical health is that people cannot see it or touch it. You cannot show them an X-Ray or a rash but it is authentic
When people ask what depression is like, John’s description of black moods also resonates. For that is what depression feels like. It has no bright colours initially. But as treatment bears fruit, shards of a rainbow come through.
But people are still fearful of coming out and admitting they have a mental health problem. A common misconception about people with mental health problems is that they are attention seeking. Exactly so! We all seek attention. Human beings are relational. But it is the idea that seeking help is cast in a negative light that stops people coming forward and admitting their problem, thus delaying recovery and better management of their condition.
Another platitude offered by the armchair psychologist is that there are people worse off. This is a red herring. People still have to live in their skins, and they should be able to do so equitably and happily without bogus interventions from armchair ‘doctors.’ If we all followed that ridiculous line of thought, sympathy, and more pointedly, empathy would not exist.
John has said that he hoped people would notice no difference as a result of the pills. I actually think they will. They will hopefully notice fewer black moods. They may see a happier person as time progresses. They will see a man who confronts difficulty, not one who shies away from it. MP’s are people and this intervention shows politics has a human face, and is not all about duck ponds and foie gras. I believe John’s intervention will have helped many people. For in my world, socially constructed, misappropriated weakness is really strength. Thank you Mr Bump. You are impressively climbing the metaphorical ladder again.