02/02/2016 05:42 GMT | Updated 29/01/2017 05:12 GMT

When It Comes to Mental Health, We're Moving Backwards


Yes, it's true. All the progress we've made on the image of mental health is being slowly unpicked and undone. We seem to be sliding back towards an antiquated view of the mentally ill as being lazy, scroungers and fakers, an image they've worked so hard to shake off.

Who's responsible? Well, the answer as ever is the austerity regime. The Work Capability Assessments not only force those who shouldn't be in work to go back to work, they actually exacerbate mental health conditions. As Dr Jed Boardman told The Guardian, ""People with severe long-term problems get very distressed about being assessed, probably because mistakes are made, because the process isn't perfect, because they don't feel they are being listened to in their interviews". It's too soon to tell the actual impact of the WCAs in terms of numbers, but there have been around 590 suicides related to the WCAs and thousands have died after being found fit for work.

But the WCAs don't have to kill you to affect you. Even if you're already in work and so have never been subject to a WCA, you just still be concerned. Because they arouse suspicion of anyone with mental health difficulties. Are their problems real or are they just making it up? The underlying message of the WCA is that there are people out there who are claiming incapacity benefits that they have no right to. So, fakers and scroungers. If you have a physical disability, it won't save you from the harshness of the WCA but at least it's more provable than a mental illness. How do you sit in a room and prove beyond doubt that you are too depressed to work? How do you do that without suffering crippling anxiety and tripping over your words? How do you do it without causing yourself to relapse afterwards? But fail the test and your illness is forever labelled as imaginary.

The Labour Campaign for Mental Health is making me realise that we all need to make a conscious effort to say that we believe those people are suffering mental illness. My friend Katy has been involved in the campaign and her story is one of hundreds where the intervention of friends and doctors saved her life. How different things would have been if no-one had believed that she was ill, or had told her to just pull herself together because she was "fit for work".

I find it hard to believe that anyone moves through life entirely free from the spectre of depression or anxiety. Maybe it's one of the many privileges that comes with money and an Eton education but even the richest of people must occasionally feel the nagging self doubt that could be the start of a downward spiral. It could be any of us. All it takes is one bad job that stresses you out and wrecks your confidence and you too could find yourself having to prove to someone that you're too depressed to work again straight away. So who can possibly justify being so unsympathetic towards anyone with mental illness? Do they not realise how close we all come to the edge sometimes?

That's why I want to say: I believe you. Whatever demons you're fighting, whatever's going on in your head that is making the business of living life so damn hard, I believe you. Because if I believe you and am prepared to listen to you, maybe that'll help you back towards recovery. Maybe it'll give you the confidence that other people might believe you too - your doctor, your boss, your family. It takes strength and courage to talk about mental illness, but let's keep that conversation going. Let's not slip back to a time when mental health was the great unmentionable.

In other words, it's time to talk.