Beyond The Ballot is The Huffington Post UK's alternative take on the General Election, taking on the issues too awkward for Westminster. It focuses on the unanswered questions around internet freedom, mental health and housing. Election news, blogs, polls and predictions are combined with in-depth coverage of our three issues including roundtable debates, MP interviews and analysis
“I’m probably a better MP for having had an episode of depression,” says Sarah Wollaston, the politician who traded life as a GP for Westminster.
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The Tories are emphasising their greatest strength ahead of the General Election - the economy - but Wollaston, who was an activist backbencher throughout the last parliament, wishes they would talk more about an issue that, according to best estimates, affects a quarter of British people every year.
Wollaston, 53, is not a party animal. She won an open primary - one of only two people elected in 2010 to have done so - to be the Tory candidate for Totnes in Devon, where she had been a GP for more than two decades.
Two years after her election, she was among a group of MPs to stand up in the Commons and describe their history with mental health problems. She described how she had suffered post-natal depression following the birth of her child, and how what should have been "the happiest time of my life" was ridden with severe panic attacks after returning to work. Her and her colleagues’ example was lauded by the press. David Cameron even wrote to Wollaston to express his support for her bravery.
When she sits down with The Huffington Post UK in early March, she says going public about it did not occur to her when she put herself forward for the intense scrutiny of being an MP. “[I’d] always viewed it as a normal part of my life. I think I was a better doctor after I’d had an episode of depression. I’m probably a better MP for having had an episode of depression. At the time, I wouldn’t wish to go back to there but undoubtedly, once you’ve had that experience and come through, it can make your a more reflective person and it certainly made me a more empathic person and it gave me an ability to recognise it in others.”
In December 2013, Labour MP John Woodcock announced he was seeking treatment for depression, saying he was comfortable revealing it publicly because he was following the example of "brilliant, inspiring people".
But since that 2012 Commons debate, there has not been a flurry of MPs feeling confident enough to describe mental health publicly. So the scale of the issue among 650 MPs remains hidden. Wollaston sees no reason why the scale of it should be different to the population at large.
When asked if MPs had approached her after she went public, she says: “Lots of people. The fact is this is an organisation with 650 people, it’d be very surprising if only four of us had ever experienced a mental health issue. It would be completely impossible.
“There’s a great deal of distress among MPs. But it’s always much more difficult to talk about a current problem than it is to talk about something that’s affected you in the past. The reality is… there's a much more sympathetic approach within the media, but nevertheless it’s still viewed as a sign of weakness in some circles among MPs… we’ve got a way to go."
She describes how her constituents were understanding when she broke her arm last year and had to scale back her engagements. "If I’d said, well, I can’t come to do a visit very easily because I’m suffering from a mental health problem, would that have received the same level of understanding? I don’t know. I'd like to think it would be.”
I ask whether more MPs coming out about their mental health histories help to humanise politicians, at a time when 'out of touch' is the most common epithet from voters. Wollaston agrees that being open is a good principle but thinks MPs need to "live in the real world" about how they're perceived.
"People have never liked MPs, we shouldn’t pretend we need to return to some golden age of trust and faith... People have never liked or trusted politicians... If you want to be liked, you get a spaniel," she says. "No one forces you to apply for this job. No one’s pretending that MPs should have special sympathy and they never will, let’s be honest, so, let’s live in the real world - never been liked, never been trusted and never will be.”
Wollaston is passionate about health for professional and personal reasons. But does being a Tory make her an unlikely champion of those with mental health issues? It is not that long ago that a senior Tory, now a potential future leader, called the Conservatives "the nasty party" - viewed as unsympathetic to those outside the mainstream.
Two days before Wollaston speaks to HuffPost UK, Nick Clegg hosts a one-hour programme on the issue on LBC. She denies my claim that Cameron, by contrast, "barely" mentions it as an the issue. "He certainly..." she pauses. "I’ve heard him speak about the importance of it."
She points out the Lib Dems have held the ministerial brief that covers mental health throughout the coalition, which explains why they are more likely than the Tories to discuss it. Wollaston's passionate advocacy of mental health is not matched by the emphasis the Tories are placing on it.
She concedes that parties will always campaign on their strengths but says the Tories should do more to fight the "myth" that mental health is not a Tory priority. “We shouldn’t allow this to be identified entirely with the Lib Dems. There are very many people in the Conservative Party talking about this. The most memorable of all the speeches (in the Commons) around mental health was [Tory Broxbourne MP] Charles Walker... his was the most memorable of all. He has tirelessly campaigned on this," she says.
“We have to scotch this myth that it's a Conservative-free zone. It’s not. I think some things are portrayed in the media and they’re believed... Perhaps, we just need more Conservative ministers to be mentioning it." She adds: "I’d love to see the prime minister talking more about health."
I ask whether the Tories can win more votes by talking about mental health more. “Of course, I absolutely feel it should be out there. Health should be in the top five things we talk about. But the way these things work, you tend to speak to your strongest points during an election and undoubtedly the economy is our strongest point."
Wollaston says her party should be prouder of its record on the issue. Gavin Barwell, a Conservative backbencher, introduced a Private Member's Bill, supported by Wollaston, which repealed laws that prevented those who had ever been sectioned to serve as MPs or as jurors. “It was trying to sweep away last remaining legalised discrimination against mental health, for example not being able to being a member of a jury if you’d been sectioned. What did that say about us as a society?” It was perverse you could’ve been an MP having gone to prison but not having been sectioned.”
What is the one policy she'd like to see Tory Manifesto that addresses mental health? "Implementation of parity of esteem," she says without hesitating. The Health and Social Care Act, which radically overhauled the NHS, included a commitment to developing parity of esteem - effectively valuing mental health as much as physical health and ensuring that it's as easy to access care for one as the other. Wollaston has previously said that this "will have a hollow ring to it" without tangible results.
"What's been lacking so far is actually seeing that translate into change on the ground," she says. "[Mental health] has never received the kind of funding or support that focuses on its importance."
The Tory manifesto, published in April after this interview, does not seem to share Wollaston's sentiment that parity of esteem is yet to be achieved, saying: "We have legislated to ensure that mental and physical health conditions are given equal priority. We will now go further..."
She laments that only 6% of the mental health budget goes on children, despite the fact most of those who suffer their whole lives with mental health issues will start to do so before the age of 15. She also describes the proportion of the NHS budget that goes on mental health as "tiny".
She welcomes the recent funding of 50 more beds for children who need the most acute hospital treatment for mental health, noting the lack of them was forcing young patients to have to travel hundreds of miles across the country to receive. The Health Select Committee's enquiry into mental health services heard evidence that patient beds can cost £25,000 a month.
"The trouble is, if you just focus on providing beds for the most acutely unwell people but that happens at the expense of funding all those charities at ground level who are doing all that amazing intervention, then unfortunately, all you do, is have more children entering the system when they are very unwell indeed... In other words, it mustn't just be a shift from prevention to acute beds, because you just end up having to buy more beds because you have more very sick children.
"You need to recognise that we have a problem here and now but at the same time as funding those beds, you must be putting more money into early intervention, there’s very good evidence that that works and it makes a real difference. The challenge is, if you shift resource, if you make one slice of the pie bigger, the question is what do you make smaller? It’s not as if anybody in the mental health pie has lots of slack they want to give up.”
She highlights another problem - she sees an accountability gap in the NHS that can make it hard to judge promises of change. "If we don't get parity of esteem, who actually carries the can? Does any one lose their job as a result? At the moment, it's hard to identify anyone who would be responsible," she says.
"My question to Simon Stevens (NHS England chief executive) and the minister is: Who’s going to hold responsibility for this? The trouble at the moment is there isn’t anyone who’s personally responsible for making this happen… There are lots of things in the NHS where we have funding in the wrong places… You pull the levers in the NHS and nothing happens. How do you actually get that system changed?”
She describes parity of esteem as "a start" and a spur to overcoming the stigma of the issue.
"We’ve come a very long way over the last decade, an extraordinary advance... Ten years ago, would we have seen people feel confident to discuss personal history of mental illness? I don’t think we would have done. Now, we’ve seen, across the spectrum, through people in the media, sports personalities, comedians, being open about the fact that they have had a problem in the past.”
She says the public is coming to understand mental issues as a “normal part of life for very many people” - the same phrase she used to describe her own experiences which she ultimately decided to share with the public. Having had problems “doesn't mean that always puts you in a box,” she says.
“We should be talking about mental health problems through the lens of recovery. This is something that can make you a stronger person. This is for many people a normal part of life experience and we should talk about it in those terms."
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