In June 2012, in an otherwise routine Parliamentary debate, for the first time in our history heard a sitting MP talk about his own mental health difficulties. Kevan Jones, the MP for Durham and a former defence minister, spoke without notes about his experiences of depression and how he had managed it during his time in government. He was followed in the debate by Charles Walker, who discussed his experiences of OCD, memorably describing himself as "a fruitcake" and how his condition could be challenging but did not impede (and sometimes helped) his work as a Member of Parliament.
That debate is now five years ago. Since that time, more MPs and many others in positions of power and influence have spoken about their mental health such that it now seems quite normal in public discourse.
Yet in 2012 it was a rarity, a courageous act for a public figure the consequences of which were unknown. Prior to it, and sadly sometimes since, politicians and satirists routinely used slurs and innuendos about people's mental health as a way of scoring points and undermining their credibility. Talking about their own mental health was becoming ok for celebrities but not yet for people in positions of power and responsibility.
In the end, both MPs said that after the debate they received widespread support and praise for their actions. And the effect in Westminster of their speeches was electric: creating an environment where it became 'ok to talk' about mental health and where the needs of people with mental health problems went from being a 'Cinderella' topic of political debate to being a serious cause for concern. The number of Parliamentary Questions and debates about mental health has increased and the sense of mental health as an issue of public and political concern has grown beyond recognition. And at the local level, more than 90 local authorities in England now have elected 'member champions' for mental health, some of whom have personal experiences of mental health difficulty that they have talked about openly to help to dispel myths and misperceptions.
At the time, the debate was barely noted in the media. This week, by contrast, Prince Harry's Daily Telegraph interview about his own mental health issues following the death of his mother gained a very different level of media attention. His candid discussion with Bryony Gordon about how the loss of his mother affected him and how he sought help many years later has been widely praised and welcomed for bringing about a higher level of awareness and attention to mental health in the public sphere. Rather than speaking about mental health difficulties affecting other people, as objects of empathy or sympathy, the Prince instead discussed his own unique challenges as part of an ongoing campaign to encourage greater openness and help-seeking.
Moments in history such as these can be seen as reflecting, defining and creating social change. They very often follow a great deal of groundwork, in this case led by the many other people who have experienced mental health difficulties and spoken about them publicly to help to dispel myths and improve the support people get. They set a milestone in public discourse, giving a signal that speaking about our own mental health (in the media, in Parliament, local council chambers or anywhere else) is socially acceptable. And they bring about further change, pushing the boundaries another step and inviting others to challenge ingrained perceptions about mental health.
We do not yet know what impact Prince Harry's words will have on our society's understanding of mental health issues, and there are continued concerns that growing awareness about mental health has yet to translate into better support for people with mental health problems. But the Prince's leadership and preparedness to speak so frankly about his mental health have nonetheless created a new platform to engage with more people in different ways about it. It is an opportunity, for those in a position to take it, to change actions as well as words.