Here is a blog that will be appearing shortly on the Time to Change website, which I have written about the latest big company to get on board the campaign to end the stigma and taboo surrounding mental illness.
I recently attended the offices of one of the world’s biggest accountancy firms, Ernst & Young, as they joined the many organisations signing up to the Time to Change pledge. This commitment helps us to edge a little further towards the tipping point where mental illness is no longer considered a taboo.
Six thousand people work in the building where I was speaking. Some of them will already have mental health conditions. In such a stressful world, others may develop them. It was heartening to see such a big company taking these issues, and the wellbeing of staff, so seriously. I hope other similarly sized firms in the financial centre of London will follow suit.
One in four of us will experience a mental illness in some shape or form and in a perfect world this should not affect our employability. However, sadly, mental health stigma still exists in workplaces so the support from Ernst & Young is valuable. As the Time to Change ‘World Without’ report asks, what would our world be like without historical leaders such as Churchill, Lincoln, Darwin, Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale – all had what today would be viewed as mental health problems.
My personal experience with mental illness is no secret. I still have bouts of depression but I have help and support to come through these difficult episodes. In 1986 I had a major psychotic breakdown where I experienced voices, paranoia and I was eventually arrested and admitted to hospital for my own safety. As I said to the Ernst and Young meeting, it was the worst experience of my life at the time, but looking back it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I sorted out my priorities and am now better equipped with a good yardstick to deal with pressure and stressful situations.
When I moved over from journalism to politics I had no choice but to be open about my illness, because one or two papers wrote about it, and I never regretted it. For now I have accepted that this is a part of me and something that I can manage. One great form of therapy was writing my novel about mental illness, All in the Mind, and more recently an ebook on the political and personal pursuit of happiness, ‘The Happy Depressive’. People are kind enough to say it helps them when people with a public profile talk about these things. In truth it helps me too.
I have been lucky in the workplace and to be fair to the media, on this part of my life they have been pretty good. But others really are not so lucky. They fear that if they admit a problem past or present it will be held against them, and job opportunities will vanish.
Mental health really is the last taboo. We look back at times when black people couldn’t vote, when women couldn’t wear trousers in the workplace, when gay people couldn’t be honest about their sexuality – this all seems totally unacceptable now. It took time and it took the courage of campaigners to break down those taboos. Now we all of us have to work at breaking down the taboo of mental illness. We all have physical health. Some days it is good. Some days it is less good. It is the same with mental health and we would all be better off if we admitted that.
I hope that I can look back during my life time and people of the next generation will ask “Why were people so scared of being open about our mental illnesses?”; “Did employers really say they would not recruit someone who admitted they took medication for depression?”; “Did we really used to think that people who have schizophrenia were all violent?”; Did people with lived experience of mental health problems really say that the stigma and taboo was sometimes worse than the symptoms of their illness?”. And last but not least “Did we really used to write off some of the brightest and best in our country because they carried a label marked mental illness?”
So many thanks to Ernst and Young for signing up to Time to Change. And come on other firms and organisations – big or small – join Time to Change and pledge to end mental health discrimination. This is a battle we can win. But it takes people to see that it matters, and want to make it happen.