In Parliament, even though a belief in free speech is part of our DNA, there can for long periods be taboo subjects. Mental health used to be one of them. Someone has to break the taboo, as a number of colleagues so memorably did in the Backbench Business Committee debate on mental health in June 2012.
The debate was remarkable. Not only did it address issues relating to mental health but, in the words of Gavin Barwell MP, it facilitated an exchange of views that mixed the personal testimonies of Parliamentary colleagues with what we have come to learn about mental health as constituency MPs.
The speeches of Kevan Jones and Charles Walker, who both spoke movingly of their own experiences, won widespread acclaim and were rightly heralded as an important moment in challenging the stigma associated with mental health difficulties.
Largely as a result of the debate, and concerns raised by our in-house occupational physicians about the need for discreet mental health services for members, a view was taken by the House that more needed to be done to provide mental health support for Parliamentary colleagues.
When discussing the House’s mental health services, I always make the point that this is not about MPs getting a “premium” service denied to others. As with other highly mobile careers, it is a fact that an MP’s job, often splitting time between his or her constituency and Westminster, places a particular strain on family life and mental health, but our profession is not unique in this regard.
What is unique is that the profile of even the most recently elected MP often makes it difficult to access services in his or her constituency, as any referral runs the risk of becoming public knowledge.
There is no shame, as colleagues in the 2012 debate pointed out, in requiring help, and it is important to challenge the stigma that attaches itself to those with difficulties. However, a balance has to be struck: access to services should not depend on making a public or semi-public declaration about one’s own personal circumstances, not least because the most vulnerable and those in most need of help are the least likely to be able to do so.
As a result of decisions taken by the House of Commons Commission – which, as speaker, I have the honour to chair – the House employs two consultant occupational physicians. Members are actively encouraged to seek highly confidential advice from them – either on or off the estate – if they have concerns about their personal mental health. Specialist secondary treatment, including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), is available for those who would benefit from it, along with other forms of psychotherapy.
I am extremely pleased that the House of Commons, as an employer, has addressed this matter and is now providing these invaluable services. Moreover, I think it is important that Parliament as an institution should be an example – by what is said and by what is done – of good practice in the field of support for the one in four of us who, according to the mental health charity Mind, will need it over the course of a year.
As Robert Buckland MP noted in his speech to the House just over three years ago” “We are all, Parliamentarians or otherwise, a little more brittle than we care to admit.”
John Bercow is MP for Buckingham and the speaker of the House of Commons