15 Jun 2012

MP shows human face of mental illness


The decision of Conservative MP Charles Walker to speak openly about the mental illness that he has struggled with over three decades generates praise and admiration from the public.

MPs joke that the way to bury bad news is to make an announcement in the Commons chamber, as so few journalists pay attention to what is going on in there. Well yesterday was an exception.

As one MP after another stood up to talk frankly, bravely and movingly about their mental health problems, I and many others DID take notice. Westminster is such a rough and tumble, brutal place where careers are made or broken seemingly on a whim. So for so many MPs to speak with such candour was really quite extraordinary.

Tory backbencher Charles Walker has suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) for 31 years.

I first came across him a few weeks ago, when Lord Stevenson, the former HBOS chairman who has suffered from depression, told me about a private members’ bill they had drawn up together to end discrimination against people with mental health problems. Lord Stevenson said the bill had now secured the backing of a government aide, and might actually make it into law.

I gave Charles a call to see if I could persuade him to come on Channel 4 News and talk about his battle with OCD, arguing that if he and other high-profile, successful people with mental health difficulties went public, it might help end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

To my slight surprise he agreed. So after he made his Commons speech, he was as good as his word, and came on the programme to talk some more about his experiences.

The reaction to his interview was really uplifting. People themselves suffering from depression or other mental illnesses got in touch via Twitter or on email to say how encouraged they were by a public figure who has not only managed to overcome his own problems, but resolutely refuses to be embarrassed by them.

It is suggested that one in four people will suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives. Yesterday’s contributions from MPs might go some way to reassuring sufferers that what they are going through is not as uncommon as they might think – and that challenges of this sort can be surmountable.