Stigma in Parliament

More than a quarter of parliamentary staff surveyed, including MPs, Lords and support staff, suffer from mental illness brought about by stress according to an article published in The Independent today.

A MIND press release further breaks down the figures revealing that

An anonymous questionnaire completed by 94 MPs, 100 Lords and 151 parliamentary staff has revealed that:

  • – 27% had personal experience of a mental health problem including 19% of MPs, 17% of Peers, 45% of staff
  • – 94% had family or friends who have experienced a mental health problem
  • – 86% of MPs said their job was stressful
  • – 1 in 3 said work-based stigma and the expectation of a hostile reaction from the media and public prevented them from being open about mental health issues.
  • image dlade at Flickr

So in effect, they are no different from any of us really. Except arguably they have a more stressful job that draws them into the limelight.

Both the article and the report though, highlight the additional stigma that exists regarding mental illness in the sense that even policy makers are not able to admit to it openly for fear of harming their careers.

Currently the Mental Health Act (1983) bars an MP from re-election if they are admitted to hospital under compulsion – and MIND highlights the discrepancy between the treatment of a someone who has recovered from a physical illness with someone who has recovered from a mental illness by stating that

… if an MP is physically incapable of working for six months due to a serious illness they would not be forced to stand down. The majority of MPs who responded thought this rule was discriminatory and urgently needs to be changed.

Without wanting to be too harsh, there does seem to be something a little ironic about MPs calling for the law to be changed.. especially as a new amended Mental Health Bill has not long passed through their hands.

The Independent quotes one unnamed MP who insisted on anonymity as saying

“I would love as an established MP to talk openly of the serious depressive illness I endured long before I became or even thought of being a MP.

“It might serve as some small encouragement to those few young people currently shrouded in despair, feeling their life is hopeless. I have no confidence though that national or, importantly, local media will not succumb to the temptation in their coverage to make life more difficult for my party.”

I would also love you to, anonymous!

It should be something that absolutely works in a positive way to lead the way for others who are experiencing difficulties or seeing the difficulties that family members are experiencing to show what is achievable and the potential to increase public understanding and awareness could be immense.

Concern about career is a major obstacle to a wider openness about mental illness and any widespread attempts to further batten down the stigma that is so often associated with it.

Totalblue writing yesterday referred yesterday to  an article which highlights the difficulties of workplace prejudice relating to mental illness suffers by those in The City.

Of course, this comes as no great surprise. The figures suggest though, that a lot more people suffer from mental illness than are able to speak about it – which indicates the excessive levels of stigma that exist. It seems to be something like the proverbial elephant in the room that no-one wants to talk about.

I certainly don’t exclude members of my own profession either. A good friend of mine – also a social worker – was suffering from depression  (and quite severe)  and tried to insist  her doctor signed her off with ‘stress-related’ unspecified illnesses because she was terrified that it would forever mark her career.

Figures suggest almost everyone is affected, if not personally, then a family member, close friend. I would wager a bet those journalists in the national and local papers that the MPs are concerned about are affected and certainly the constituents that vote for them, everyone.

It just needs a few more to be open and of course, who is in a better position to change discriminatory laws than the MPs themselves!

10 thoughts on “Stigma in Parliament

  1. What a fascinating conversation for members of Parliament to weigh in on, or rather, decline to weigh in on even though evidence suggest they have expertise to offer. I experienced a similar dynamic when working in a large law firm. Over the years, numerous partners developed substance abuse issues (mostly alcohol–it’s legal!), the divorce rate was well above the national average. A couple of partners committed suicide. Could it be that the practice of law brought about mental health issues? According to the firm: not a chance. Nobody even wanted to entertain the thought. I guess it would have required more change and vulnerability than anyone was ready for.

  2. Good point, but I am with Chuckle. The risks against a career and not worth the benfit of getting more publicity for mental illness. At the end of the day, it wont pay your bills but work will. X

  3. I suppose in the majority of cases, people choose politics as a secondary career after ‘making their mark’ in another profession so I think they would possibly not be losing everything if they were to speak up. After all, Kjell Magne Bondevik, the former Prime Minister of Norway has spoken publicly about his depression – it’s widely known that Churchill suffered from bipolar disorder (although I’m not sure how widely known it would have been at the time). John Prescott admitted to being bulimic but only after he had resigned his position. It would take courage, but I have a feeling they might not suffer as much as they or we think they would.
    After all, most people have experience , personally, in the family or with friends of knowing someone with a mental illness!
    The stigma attached is actually incredible when you consider it. I wonder what people are so afraid of? Perhaps admitting their own, or their professions failings in being so unsupportive..

  4. I have been quite “out” at work about my mental health “problems” – as I have mentioned before management has not being that helpful or supportive – colleagues have been great – particularly very senior colleagues. I won’t be wearing my “I’M BONKERS” T shirt for work or anything but I have tried not to hide things. Anyway there was no point in being too circumspect about it all – the jungle drums had been sounding loudly before my return and everyone knew………Some people usually people who do not know me that well treat me a little differently……..but I try not to scare the children and horses.

  5. Perhaps the people who react less sympathetically are those who are most afraid.. and sometimes I think support can come from unexpected sources – and although it’s rubbish to hear that management aren’t being helpful, having supportive colleagues is a great help, I imagine!

  6. An unexpected source of support I encountered recently was a paramedic who had been called for me (!) when I went downhill after ditching the meds rather rashly (nasty scene but gave the neighbours something to chat about). She asked what I had been taking and then I told her citalopram she remarked, “Well, they’ve been working for me for years. I’d stick with them” – who knows, eh?

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