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On two inquiries

Posted on 16 June 2009 | 8:06am

What with the extraordinary events unfolding in Iran, and the announcement of the inquiry into the war in Iraq, there was no room on the main news last night for the case of Christine Laird, who was accused of lying about her history of depression when she applied for a job with Cheltenham Borough Council.

The council lost its claim of £1m, though the judge also threw out a counter-claim for damages. Outside the court, the council’s chief executive made a very revealing statement …’had the council known Mrs Laird’s medical history, it would most probably not have employed her [as managing director] and incurred the costs it has.’

When I spoke at a conference on stigma and discrimination last week, I said we would all be better off if we could be more open about mental illness, as we are about physical illness, but that in the current climate I totally understood why some chose not to be. Clearly I know no more about Mrs Laird’s case than the little I read  yesterday, but that statement sums up why some people may choose to keep any mental health problems to themselves.

I will be making the same points today when I give evidence to the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation, which is looking at the representation of disabled people in the House of Commons.

When the mental health charities did a survey of MPs last year, it found that one in five had some personal experience of mental health problems. 94 per cent said they had friends or family who had experienced a mental health problem. One in three saw work-based stigma and hostile media reaction as barriers to openness. 75 per cent supported public figures speaking openly about their experiences, but said they felt less able to do so themselves.

I guess that is why they have asked me, as someone who has been open, and who despite attracting a lot of political flak in other areas, has felt relatively little on the subject of my own history of mental illness.

In purely statistical terms, there is little doubt that some of the MPs on today’s panel are likely to have direct experience of mental health problems, and again I understand why they choose not to shout from the rooftops. I wish though that some of them would. I think it would help public understanding if they did. It would help also in terms of the raising of awareness of the issues in Parliament, which in turn has an impact on where resources get directed.

They could also think about repealing section 141 of the Mental Health Act which states that an MP can be removed from their seat if detained under the Act for a period of more than six months. Yet no such provision exists for MPs unable to work because of phsyical disability. The section has never been used, but it is a symbolic piece of straight-forward discrimination.

I will also remind the MPs of the case of former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Brondevik who took time out from his job to recover from a period of depression, found huge public support and sympathy, and went on to be re-elected for a second term.

Of course it is another inquiry, into the war in Iraq, which is getting more attention. I have not seen any of the papers today, but I imagine they will be united in condemnation of the government’s decision to hold the evidence sessions in private. The critics and commentators I saw yesterday will see it as an open and shut case, that there cannot be any argument in favour of the decision Gordon Brown announced yesterday. Yet I thought his arguments deserved a fairer hearing. I can remember when some were advising the government about the risks of the Bloody Sunday public inquiry becoming a never-ending lawyers’ fest, but the politics of the time led to pressure for exactly that kind of inquiry to be set up. It’s still going on.

If the purpose of the inquiry is to establish the truth of what happened, and allow the government to learn lessons from what went right and what went wrong, it is at least possible to make the argument that it might best be done free from the frenzy of 24 hour news. I am not saying whether I think it was the right way or the wrong way to do this, simply that for those who had to make the decision, it is not as one-sided as those calling for it to be held in public would have it.

  • kardinal birkutzki

    If you had any judgement at all, you would refrain from even broaching the subject of the Iraq enquiry. If there were any justice or openess in the way this benighted country is run, you would be locked up for life for what you did, and you know that perfectly well.

  • Peter Hall

    Only seen the Times. Interesting – they seem to think there should not be an inquiry at all. Critical of Brown’s motives for holding it, but agree best done in private

  • Harriet Barnes

    Ref the Norwegian PM … I just cannot see it happening here. Not just the media is different but maybe the public too. I don’t think there would be the sympathy there was for the Norway PM. We like our leaders not to show weakness. Might be unfair but there it is

  • Caroline

    I was at your session at the Althorp festival on Saturday. I hope you don’t tell the MPs what the man in the front row shouted out when you said it was possible for an MP to be in a coma but not lose his seat … ‘some already are!’ Harsh, I thought, but funny

  • Simon

    You must see that it’s impossible for GB to talk about “democratic renewal” whilst opting to hold this inquiry in private.

  • Jane A

    There are still pockets of discrimination enshrined in the law. I have recently done a stint of jury service. In the guidance, it states that “if I currently have, or have had in the past, a mental illness, a psychotic disorder..and because of that…you regularly attend for treatment by a medical practitioner” that I would be disqualified from serving. The implication is that even previous mental illness, or a regular check up with my GP on account of previous mental illness, would mean I had no capacity to take decisions in a court case.

    Surely, surely, surely wrong. Keep up the good work in highlighting these out of date views.

  • Charlie

    The Hutton Enquiry was held in Public. All were able to hear the evidence that was presented. Many people may have agreed with him, but many came to a different conclusion to that reached by Lord Hutton. Based on the same Evidence.

    In this latest case Brown has left us no choice. If the Evidence is not to be presented to us we can only agree with Press accusations of sham, windowdressing, cover up and whitewash etc. Most people’s default position is not to trust a sylable that Brown utters, still less that of some committee of cronies meeting in private.

  • christine higginbottom

    Dear Alistair,
    The Government’s Social Inclusion Plans for the mentally ill,will be a fantastic success though, won’t it Alistair?

    Blackpool are having these plans implemented here very soon by our Council, causing fear and anxiety to the people who are allegedly going to have their lives transformed by it.

    Especially the ones who are severely ill, and rely on their day centre for safety, security, friendship and staff who know and care about them very much.

    My son has two severe mental illnesses, completely disabled by them and probably heading for a hospital ward very soon.

    So I thank the Government and Blackpool Council for the ‘special’ care given to the mentally ill of Blackpool, especially the Assistant Director-Strategic Commissioning, Blackpool Council.

    Thank you, Christine.

  • Pete B

    Absolutely right regarding openness and mental health.

    I take your points about the reasons for holding the Iraq inquiry in private, however I can’t see that there is any point in anything other than a public inquiry. Only if all the evidence (with the exception of sensitive national security information) is made public, can anyone verify the validity of the conclusions. Otherwise, how would we know whether there had been an enormous Whitehall cover-up? Frankly, if secrecy is extended beyond what is absolutely necessary, I have to assume that there is something to hide. That the inquiry will only report after the general election simply reinforces this view.

  • Colin Morley

    Alastair – I am so glad you blogged about this. I too heard it on the news and was apalled. I was once (only once) asked in a job interview if I had ever suffered from depression. I answered truthfully and was not shortlisted – whether a direct consequence I shall never know but always suspect.
    I don’t know if you joined the group ‘Depression is an illness, not a lifestyle choice’ which was founded by my son who also suffers. Thank you anyway for bringing this issue back to the forefront.

  • Wyrdtimes

    One day the truth will out and those with blood on their hands will be held accountable.

    All of them. Including the propagandists and spinners.

  • Katharine T.

    I am completely stunned that such a question is even allowed or is legal in an interview. I never thought I would ever say that Canada is a more civilized place than the U.K., but now I have to wonder. Do you not have proper Employment legislation?

  • martin rukin

    what can i say,again the hated name STIGMA raises its old head again.we need to get into the heads of employers,and put accross that mental health problems effect every body in their lives,on some level.or anouther.maybe it should not be in there in the first place martin

  • Eddy

    Perhaps the example of the former Norwegian Prime Minister shows how the public as a whole, who as the statistics indicate often suffer from some form of mental illness themselves or at least know someone that does, are far more understanding than an often under-informed media.

    Senator Thomas Eagleton was dumped as VP from the Democratic ticket in 1972 (although the candidate McGovern was sympathetic as his daughter suffered from depression) after a media frenzy after his record of mental illness and depression was revealed. However a Time magazine poll at the time suggested that 77% of the American public (even 37 years ago) said “Eagleton’s medical record would not affect their vote.”

    He continued to serve as an effective and distinguished Senator for many years showing how he could continue in high office despite the smears against him. He played a key role in ending the Vietnam war and introduced the the first US Clean Air Act.

  • Em

    @Katherine T.

    Such an interview question is completely illegal in Canada. Despite big union powers, UK employment has puzzling holes. We’re talking about a country that only just discovered the wonders of minimum wage and with David “Paris Hilton” Cameron waiting in the wings to remove it.

    @Iraq enquiry. Wanted to wait until I found time to read the editorials today but it’s not going to happen. My un-cogitated opinion is that beyond a frenzied media, there is a nation of people with the right to know.

    Sometimes, AC, it seems your view of the land begins and ends with the media. Too much McLuhan, maybe? There could be a non-publication ban but with public hearings — at least, we wouldn’t have the feeling that this is all done “in camera”.

    (to Alastair’s webmaster: will putting html tags in our comments work?)

  • The Blues

    Iraq war? Complete Madness. I wonder what the state of the Iraqi population mental health is after being bombed to Smithereens. Perhaps you can investigate and report back. All ears.

  • Em

    AC, I want to apologise for not having commented more on mental illness. I know this is a topic close to you. You work so hard and, I’m afraid that, in 2009, ignorance doesn’t cut much ice with me. Am I wrong to think that those who have closed minds at this point actively want to be closed-minded?

    I’m not a great apologist for men but I do think they are between a rock and a hard place when they are asked to sensitive but tough, strong and gentle. Whether it is in society at large or within intimate relationships, I believe we make schizophrenic demands upon men’s psyches.

    Although I understand all these barriers intellectually, I have a difficult time relating to (and thus discussing) the issue of stigma. In the Dark Ages, holes were driven through mentally ill people’s heads in order to “drive the demons” away. I’m not sure we’ve evolved much since then. Looking at our ancestors, we can at least assume that they had good intentions. Today, I’m not sure people have an excuse. I see those who fear mental illness and its victims as revealing more about themselves than they are about the mentally ill and once that is pointed out discussions tend to turn sour.

    More needs to be said about all the art and ideas the so-called mentally ill have brought to our world and whether those who “function” always aren’t just a bit numb.

  • Katharine T.

    (to Em and AC)
    Perhaps, in light of current economic conditions it would be prudent of your Labour Party to study some of Canada’s Employment legislation (good lord, I never thought I would hear myself say THAT) and adopt some of our Human Rights Code to make a secondary (albeit an important) platform that makes it illegal to question a potential employee’s marital status, child status, previous or current mental health issues, or even physical health issues.

    Respectfully, if there is is not legislation currently in place, then there should be.

  • Jane A

    Em, that’s a thought provoking post.

    It feels like the battle against stigma is a slow moving thing, the last unvisited room in the civil rights house. But it’s only a few decades in this country since unmarried mothers were incarcerated in asylums because their so called moral degeneracy could only be rationalised to society as madness.

    Once people were admitted to asylums, they might expect to be there for life – the aim wasn’t cure, but containment.

    With enlightment, the average stay in inpatient wards, except for the very acutely ill, can be weeks not months. Then people are back at home with a support network of mental health workers delivering care to them, rather than gathering people up and throwing away the key.

    Therefore, people *see* a lot more people with mental illness than was ever the case before. They are all around us. Those with small minds and/or ignorance have something tangible to either recoil from, or to badge as “the local nutter”. There is a way to go to change not just people’s opinions, but also effect behavioural change.

    Sorry, long post.

  • Alan Quinn

    AC, the Iraq enquiry is the boil that needs to be lanced espiecially to many in the Labour party. Gordon is wrong (as usual) to have it held behind closed doors, it should be in open court and on the BBC’s parliament channel. That would be openess and a start to cleanse parliament.

  • Trevor Malcolm, Portsmouth Hampshire

    To confirm the disturbing possibilities behind Jane Appleton’s comment, this morning, 16 June at 10 o’clock

    Her speculative observations are all too accurate. She served her stint of Jury Service, but queries surely she wouldn’t have been disqualified from such service, on account of some previous, non-physical health matter?

    Surely not, because that would imply such a citizen has no capacity to make responsible decisions in a present-time court case. What would your health years ago have to do with Jury Service now?

    Worse follows. And I know this to be policy as a victim of it recently myself

    One morn through the mail, there slips a proud summons to offer selfless contribution to the law-abiding community – and all expenses paid, too. Whoopee

    Imagine the delight here. Destined to be all togged-up, posh. An upright Citizen of Portsmouth, reporting for duty outside the Courts of Law

    NOT, not, please note, some loonie struggling to enable the local judiciary to reach verdicts that differentiate the innocent from the guilty; you’ll see how much that matters soon enough

    A chuffed, but humbled me, sharpens my yellow crayon to complete the form. Not too sharp, in case I hallucinate I’m the vicar. Then, inadvertantly redeploy the crayon to stab my chest 47 times. (Nutritionists claim it’s forgetting to swallow your Omega-3 fishy oil capsules does that to folks)

    My disaster struck. The Silly Billy me. Before sealing the Jury Service envelope, one afterthought that proved my downfall. An afterthought best described as “me, being honest”

    I stapled a photocopy of an open letter, addressed “To Whom It May Concern” – the letter’s author, Dr Ian Rodin, a forward-thinking Professor of Psychiatry at a nearby university, co-author of the seminal introductory book for graduates, entitled ‘Psychiatry’

    The same Dr Ian Rodin, a gentleman of integrity, whom I’d met twice-yearly from 1997 to 2004, whilst he headed up the Portsmouth Mental Healthcare team, as their Consultant Psychiatrist

    I overlooked his letter highlighted uncompromisingly my severe and deeply private, yet often disabling depressions. That part of me that hardly anybody’s allowed to get near or even see, even know exists, if I can help it

    Ironically, the purpose the open letter was drafted, to stave off the unwarranted, meddling interferences from government clerical staff who’re paid to doubt “non-physical” disabilities could even exist. Staff who prefer more prestigious designations, eg Adjudication Officer, Government Compliance, Decision-Maker

    Off went my filled-in form. WHOOSH clattered through the letterbox, a full response and closure letter from Jury Service. For speed, even just an acknowledgement, no government department could compete, not DLA Blackpool, not DWP. Not unless you were invited for Jury Service, and your past mental health comes to their attention, that is

    Only explanation for such speedy responsiveness? Summons to Jury Service offices must have staff waiting in the wings for the postman to deliver applications from those deemed ” … nutty as a slab of fruitcake” – or as their letter concedes – “experience special or exceptional category needs”

    No clear sign or indication why episodic depression makes you special or exceptional, sadly

    I now presume there’s a covert government database banning me from ever being considered for Jury Service, or much else either

    So, hardly any wonder jobseekers lie about prior mental health, eg on their CVs and during interviews. Your blog today refers to the case of Mrs Laird (see blog opposite)

    Choosing NOT to reveal past malady for fear it will instantly jeopardise their present job application, sounds essential to me now

    They’re wiser than I was. Just they learnt that we live within a culture where, on some subjects, it’s self-advantageous to tell a prospective employer your pack of lies

    I can guess what you’re thinking

    Yes, true, you, sir, told Tony Blair about your 1986. He shrugged, that was all fine by him. But do you realise how lucky you were to find a prospective employer with that flexible an attitude? Unlikely, so I doubt it

    Stigma, mental health “measures” – educate employers first? Or you suggested last week to NHS staff it was their “Time for Change” – sure, heard all the talkings, now

    In fact, it’s also time to convince the staff who serve the government. Do THAT first – that’s not one for the faint-hearted



  • Em

    Thank you for that reply, Jane. I hadn’t thought about this specific consequence to disinstitutionalisation, but I guess you’re right. We are more exposed to the mentally ill.

    In the old days in Quebec, with Catholic families of fifteen kids, it wasn’t rare for one of the kids to be “touched”. But they were kept at home and remained part of the family for sure. I know this because the “touched” characters are an integral part of Quebec literature. Remember Anne Hebert? She has one such hero in her most celebrated book. Of course, we’re talking of a different type of mental disease here, congenital rather mood-related.

    Pregnant women “sans mari” would be married off somehow and be said to have given birth prematurely, very prematurely. No, institutionalisation for them.