20 Jul 2012

Lord Stevenson: my battle with depression


A leading businessman and peer tells Channel 4 News that the way society discriminates against people with mental health problems is like the scandal of the Salem witch trials in the 17th century.

In an exclusive interview with Channel 4 News – the first time he has addressed the subject on television – Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, former chairman of HBOS and the publishing group Pearson, says he has spent most of his life battling depression.

The government is now backing his mental health bill, which will change the law to allow people with common conditions like post-natal depression to run companies, become school governors or undertake jury service.

“It’s basically getting rid of the Salem witches aspect of mental health discrimination. We’ve done in our country – it’s not perfect – but we’ve done gender, race, age, disability.

“[But] At the moment if you’re a school governor, [or] a company director there are circumstances under which your colleagues can get rid of you on mental health grounds,” he says.

He regularly sees a cognitive behavioural therapist to deal with his depression. However, under current laws, the fact that he is receiving medical help would, for example, prevent him and millions of others like him doing jury service.

‘Worse than breaking leg’

In the interview, Lord Stevenson described his first bout of depression as “much worse than breaking my leg in ten places”.

He explained: “It was the summer, early mid nineties, and everything was lovely in my life. My work was going well…my family, wife, children were great and I was going down to our cottage in Suffolk for the summer…And I woke up, and I had a pain in mytummy, and it wouldn’t go away and it got worse and worrisome and I now think it’s called anxiety. And it transmuted over the next few weeks into me going completely crackers really and seeing things. And it was my first experience of what is very loosely described as clinical depression.”

Although each time it has recurred he has been able to continue working, it has been “a bit like walking through glue”, he said, adding that he now knows how to handle it – referring to a combination of medication and cognitive behavioural therapy as his “toolkit”.

One in four people will suffer from mental illness at some point in their life, and MPs from across the political spectrum have supported Lord Stevenson’s bill to try and change public attitudes. Several spoke movingly last month about their own battles with illnesses like obsessive compulsive disorder.

The former HBOS chairman said that although public perception of mental health problems was changing, there was still a “huge stigma”.

Whereas employers understood physical illnesses, they remained prejudiced against mental health problems. “We’re still a long way away from people going into their bosses and saying ‘Look, I think I’m suffering from depression'”, he said.

Lord Stevenson led HBOS

When I was a cub reporter at the Financial Times, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham was the boss of the boss of the boss.

He was chairman of Pearson and when, after years reporting on widget company results, I became media correspondent I used to interrogate him about the ups and downs of newspapers.

When he moved on to chairing the bank HBOS, there was never any shortage of controversies to discuss.

The interview I did today though was rather different.

A few months back I had been to see Lord Stevenson for a general chat about the banking sector and the economy. He mentioned in passing that he was putting together a mental health bill to tackle discrimination against people with common conditions like depression.

I suggested then to him that one of the most powerful ways to end the stigma around mental health would be for a prominent businessman like himself to speak out.

At first he was reluctant, saying he did not want ordinary people who were themselves battling mental health problems to see him as “special” or, as he put it, some kind of “hero”. He suggested I contact the Tory MP who he had teamed up with on the bill – Charles Walker.

Mr Walker also had an incredible story to tell about his 30-year battle with obsessive compulsive disorder – and tell it he did, with extraordinary bravery.

This month though, as part of a mini series on mental health, Lord Stevenson did agree to be interviewed, to help confront what he describes as “silly” prejudices. He speaks with honesty about “going completely crackers” – seeing things, and losing all interest in everything from eating to football.

And he addresses his plight with humour and humility, insisting there is “nothing special” about his mental illness. “This is normal and the sooner we as a society get used to the idea, start being open about it, we’ll individually feel better and we’ll treat people better,” he says.