After Ken Livingstone’s recent remarks, Westminster must take serious action on mental health issues.
Hardly a week passes without a political figure making a controversial remark, and last week’s comments from the former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone were no exception. During a defence meeting regarding Trident, Mr Livingstone, who was co-chairing the meeting, took offence to a comment about his suitability for the role, responding by telling Kevan Jones, MP for North Durham, that he “might need psychiatric help” and that he was “obviously very depressed and disturbed.”
Already offensive, the comments were all the more shocking considering Mr Jones has previously spoken about his battle with mental health issues. The usual cycle of Twitter backlash, criticism from the media, and the obligatory apology have followed. However, aside from a hostile response from politicians across the board, criticism has been limited to the political sphere, and Mr Livingstone is still currently co-chairing the defence committee – in short, punishment seems unlikely.
Had the comment been overtly racist, sexist or homophobic, for example, the situation would have rapidly led to calls for his resignation. You only have to look at the furore over incidents such as Emily Thornberry, MP for Islington South and Finsbury, and her resignation as shadow attorney general. A picture of a white van and an English flag taken whilst campaigning in Rochester led to a swift and decisive backlash. Why hasn’t the same uproar taken place here?
Mental health is an issue which is rarely discussed in the public eye. The social stigma means that when discussed, it is usually by means of ignorant comments or by putting more widely recognised mental illnesses, such as OCD and depression, on a pedestal. Perhaps the reason we do so little about these kinds of remarks is because they are an everyday part of our language. An offhand judgment about say, how “OCD makes you more organised,” may not have been directed at somebody with mental health problems, but every person with a mental illness will have heard something similar. We brush these comments off as “just a joke”, or ignore criticism of them as “too politically correct,” unaware of their harmful effect.
Politicians, or indeed all figures in the public eye, need to realise the severity of these remarks. With around one in four people in the UK suffering from a mental illness every year, it is a regular part of life for an increasing number of people. The hidden nature of it means that it often isn’t recognised as an illness, or it is simplified to grossly offensive caricatures.
At a time where government policy will make or break the NHS, and when admissions for mental health conditions have been predicted to reach one million this winter, greater awareness and greater funding are essential before the problem can get any better. During the last Parliament, mental health services experienced a funding cut of almost £600m, and recent reports show the NHS as a whole spiralling into deficit – with reports suggesting it could reach over £2bn by the end of the year. Furthermore, plans to reform the NHS to provide a seven-day service could threaten the ability of the NHS to offer vital resources, as well as resulting in a decline in doctors and nurses. In their manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged £8bn by 2020 to fund the NHS; now they are in government they should be ensuring an increasing part of this sum goes to the underfunded, undervalued mental health services.
However, without an increase in general awareness, an unhealthy silence surrounds the problem, as a large proportion of sufferers may be too anxious to even consider seeking professional help. Campaigns such as Time to Change, and celebrity voices like the YouTuber Zoella (aka Zoe Sugg, who has spoken out about her own mental health issues and is an ambassador for the mental health charity MIND) have started the debate, but only the government has the legislative power to implement changes.
An issue as important as mental health needs the backing of MPs from all political parties – it cannot just be a fight for MPs like Norman Lamb (Minister for Care and Support, who has campaigned extensively about mental health). The government can raise both awareness and funding, and if MPs can condemn the words of Mr Livingstone, then they should also use his comments as a catalyst for the changes that are needed.