Time to Talk is an annual event organised by the brilliant Time to Change charity. Time to Talk encourages us to talk about our mental health with family, friends, colleagues and even strangers. Today there’s street stalls, coffee mornings, meetings in works canteens and loads of other get-togethers where people can open up about the state of their mental health.
That’s what I’ll be doing at Westminster. Since the last Time to Talk Day, I have had a baby and as a new mum I have been acutely aware of the need for pregnant women and new mums to keep a close watch on their own mental health. This year, I am using the opportunity of Time to Talk about mental health issues affecting new parents.
According to Public Health England, during pregnancy and the year after birth, many women experience common mild mood changes. Some women experience common mental health problems, including anxiety disorders (13%) and depression (12%). The risk of developing a severe mental health condition such as postpartum psychosis (which affects between one and two in 1,000 women who have recently given birth), schizophrenia, severe depression, and bipolar illness is low but increases after childbirth.
One of the triggers to mental illness is stress and anxiety in the workplace. This is especially true when a mum or dad returns to work after the birth of their child. Today in our workplace, Parliament, we are discussing an important proposal put forward by Harriet Harman MP. When Harriet was elected to Parliament in 1982, as one of the very few women here, she was expecting a baby. As a young mum, she faced all kinds of barriers and has fought for equality ever since.
Harriet is proposing that MPs who are on maternity or paternity leave, or who are back at work but have their young children with them, should be able to vote ‘by proxy.’ At the moment, the way we vote is to pass through a voting lobby and be counted. If there are lots of votes, this means we are tied up for hours late into the evening. If an MP has a young baby to look after, this is an impossible situation. And yet the reason a Labour MP is in Parliament is to hold the government to account and to vote for, or against the things that matter to their constituents.
So if we can agree a system of proxy voting so that an MP on maternity or paternity leave can cast their vote without having to pass through the lobby, it will take a lot of the stress off their shoulders. It’s a small example of how one workplace can make life a little easier for working parents.
Just as MPs are discussing these small but significant changes, so should every workplace. In every factory, office or other place where people work, there are practical ways to help people when they return to work after having a baby. Through these small changes, stressful situations can be averted.
Taking about mental health is so important for several reasons. One is that we need to break down the taboos surrounding mental health. We need to learn to talk about our moods and feelings, and have the lexicon to talk about emotions. Fear of stigmatisation holds people back. The more we can articulate our feelings, openly and without embarrassment, the healthier we will be.
Another reason is to tackle misinformation and misconceptions. Despite the excellent campaigns in Liverpool and across the country, there are still many myths and misunderstandings about mental health. Then there’s the question of prejudice and discrimination. I know from talking to people in our area that people with mental illness still face discrimination from employers, the wider community and even from family members. Once someone is known to have a mental illness, they may become isolated, treated differently by friends or colleagues, or even bullied. In many cases this exacerbates their condition, creating a vicious circle.
So for all these reasons we need to talk to others about mental health, and listen to what people are telling us. Time to Talk day today provides the perfect platform.
Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree