There is a picture of Gordon Brown that has been pretty much a regular feature in one newspaper or another since he began his ill fated tenure in Downing Street. It’s the one where the photographer has caught him in the act of brushing a hank of limp hair away from his forehead with what looks like a full set of luggage under his lack of sleep reddened eyes. If the punishing pressures of high office combined with the ravages of unspecified personal demons had a poster boy, this is what he would look like.
I wonder if Health Secretary Andy Burnham had this picture in mind, and not just as a momento mori of the likely outcome of his own reported leadership ambitions, when he announced the government’s plans to use the NHS, Job Centre Plus and other agencies to identify and support people at risk of suffering mental health problems.
Speaking to the BBC he said that mental health issues are still ‘all too often shrouded in mystery, stigma or simply ignored.’
The ‘elephant in the drawing room’ is a lazy shorthand for our very British habit of trying to pretend those things that make us feel uncomfortable will disappear if we ignore them. In truth we don’t so much have one elephant in the drawing room as a herd of the darned things, most of which in recent years we have managed to acknowledge, where one we feared talking openly about sex or money now both subjects are the common currency of the dialogue between the tabloid press and an ever more salacious public.
The one exception to the rule is anything connected to mental health and in particular the depression that is an ever more prevalent feature of modern life. If such issues are raised at all it is either in an embarrassed whisper or through the protective prism of the sort of blunt humour used by an emotionally awkward people whenever it doesn’t want to talk about its feelings.
This is more than a little strange since some of the most prominent figures in our history have had to overcome significant problems with their mental health.
The ‘madness’ of King George III is more discussed than his long and successful reign, the long widowhood of Queen Victoria added to the age to which she lent her name its distinctive sombre tone. Winston Churchill was afflicted throughout his long career by a depressive streak he referred to as his ‘black dog’, Anthony Eden buckled under the pressures of the Suez crisis and these days almost the only thing anyone remembers about Harold Wilson is the extent of his paranoia.
The mental health of politicians is, of course, primarily put under pressure by the toxic collision between the immovable object of their ambition and the irresistible force of what Harold McMillan called ‘events dear boy, events’. They are lucky enough to be cushioned from the worst consequences of experiencing mental health problems by the innate ability of the political class to look after its own, the majority of the one in six Britons likely to suffer from mental health problems during their lifetime are not. Put in the most blunt terms mental health problems can break up families and destroy lives.
However good its intentions, and more often than not they are good, the government led by Gordon Brown has been criticized for being needlessly interventionist, maybe the source of his own mental problems, or one of them at least, is the intolerable stress imposed by attempting to micro-manage every last detail of running the country. In this case the government are right to intervene because nobody else has the money or the muscle to do so.
To date the plans have received a cautious welcome from groups that campaign on mental health issues, Peter Farmer Chief Executive of Mind praised the government for setting out a new ‘vision’ for tackling mental health issues, but warned that what was needed now was an ‘action plan for how that vision can be turned into a reality.’
And there lies the real problem, the biggest of all the elephants lumbering around our national drawing room if you like, addressing the problems caused by mental illness will take time and money; and the current government doesn’t have much of either. It can though, and it must, get the process started with a willingness to continue it if returned to office next year or failing that to put pressure on an incoming Tory government not to abandon some of this country’s most vulnerable people.