Mental health or stupidity? Your call.

By Sara T’Rula / @saratrula

There is a comedic irony about a Labour party member writing about this issue at this time, which I am sure will not be lost on our foes in blue. But it is an important topic, and the time is right to start saying a few things about it.

I’ve suffered from depression, known others who’ve suffered from depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and psychiatric disorders, and I’ve read pretty widely on the subject, too. As I write this, I am reminded that I need to take my dose of Citalopram for today.

Mental health is not something to be ashamed of. It is not something to be stigmatized. But, in 2016, it still is. Let us be clear on this: to anyone who engages in that kind of pernicious flippancy, you are either stupid, or you are fortunate enough not to know that anyone in your circle has suffered from it. Let me assure you, the chances are pretty certain that there’s someone in your circle who has had, or who will have, a mental health problem at some point in their lives. If you don’t know about their experiences of it yet, that’s simply because your attitude is at fault.

Mental health issues affect all sections of British society. It is classless. Children can be affected. Leading public figures can be affected. Party activists can be affected. No one is immune. I can empathize with you if that scares you, and I choose that word wisely because empathy is vital to addressing this problem. Empathy is also a vital aspect of the experience of mental health problems – either an intensification of it, or a flattening of it. Empathy is necessarily at the core of this issue. Let us not be so quick to forget it.

In that regard, Ken Livingstone deserves full opprobrium for his glib jab at Kevan Jones a few months ago. He apologized for that, he claims. I disagree. Ken didn’t apologize for his comments, he apologized for not knowing his comments had landed upon someone who understood the full extent of the experience Ken was alluding to. That isn’t good enough.

By making the limp excuse that he wouldn’t have used that insult had he known Kevan Jones had experienced mental health issues, he’s sanctioning precisely the kind of stigma we should be fighting to end. His evasion is indicative of his complete lack of understanding of the issues at hand. But Ken’s trouble understanding the real world is a reflection of a wider societal tendency to make light of the dark.

Mental health issues are serious and real. They can be debilitating, but they do not always have to be. I’ve known leading academics who have produced major work in their field despite suffering mental health problems. Questioning the professionalism of a colleague by suggesting their mental health is in doubt is offensive to the progressive cause that understands that mental health issues do not necessarily preclude competency in your job.

And that kind of cheap insult also scapegoats incompetency and corruption when applied to people who aren’t suffering from mental health issues, by suggesting that the problem with their work is a simple matter of brain chemistry beyond their control. When someone deserves to be insulted, we have a plethora of insults to pick from without needing to use mental health as our sword. If Ken is skeptical that the market of insults isn’t running at full capacity, I’ll happily sit down with him and dispense with some mean-tested vitriolic aid. Either way, using mental health as an insult serves no purpose.

Furthermore, that kind of outdated thinking about mental health is wholly unwelcome because it closes down the debate about what can be done to support people who are suffering. For some, it may severely affect many areas of their life. For others, with the right support, the effect on their daily routine may be more minor.

Given the salience of talking therapies as an effective treatment for many mental health illnesses, it is time we started talking more about this issue – the therapist’s couch isn’t always needed in order to make a difference.

When we make vindictive assumptions about what life is like for people who experience mental health issues, we fail to consider the variety of options for supportive intervention. And we risk making their situation worse, by failing to intervene early enough or in the right way. If you want to be cold about it, we can frame it another way: it might cost the taxpayer more to treat people if we leave them without support until they can’t hold down a job, or meet other obligations required to live independently. The bean counters become pill counters. Does that get your attention? Good.

This isn’t a policy article, and it is an ethos article only indirectly. But, in light of the negative atmosphere of the recent Young Labour Conference, it needed to be said, clearly and defiantly. We owe it to our younger Labour colleagues to create an atmosphere where this isn’t a barrier to entry.

Yes Ken, I am talking to you – as a party elder, you are failing us all. And before the Conservatives start firing up their ignorant retorts to this, check your own house first – Elliott Johnson deserved far better from you.

I know that, by writing this, some readers will judge me unfairly because of my admission that I have experienced depression. I could not care less. When it comes to brains, I’d rather suffer from depression than suffer from stupidity. You can decide which of those illnesses is your own biggest problem.

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