Tackling the stigma

What links Ted Turner, Adam Ant, Spike Milligan, Frank Bruno, Mel Gibson, Nina Simone, Robert Downey Jr, Frank Sinatra and Stephen Fry? Perhaps the latter offered the greatest clue.

They may all have been extremely successful in their respective fields, but there is another, more serious link. They have all been diagnosed with a mental illness, specifically Bipolar Disorder.

Manic depression, as it was previously know, affects about 1% of adults in the UK. It is a severe mood disorder, involving extreme highs (mania) and extreme lows (depression) which can make it difficult for those who suffer from the condition to lead a normal life.

Mr Fry, of QI and Kingdom fame, explains best:

Crucially, it is, like so many other mental illnesses, a condition which, whilst intrusive, can be controlled – and allow the sufferer to lead a normal life.

So why is there still so much stigma surrounding mental illness? Why, when The Times announced that MPs are to get on-site help for mental illness (as they do for physical illness), did some people react with incredulity that individuals with such an illness could hold the office of MP?

The stigma surrounding psychiatric conditions highlights one area where society has failed to move on from archaic beliefs. It is, in fact, the only area where, by Act of Parliament, discrimination against the mentally ill is perfectly legal.

However, on Monday, two significant events happened in Westminster. One, referenced above, was where the Commons Members’ Estimate Committee approved a modest £25,000 fund for psychiatric care for MPs. The second was the passing of an obscure Private Members’ Bill introduced by freshman Gavin Barwell through it’s Third Reading in the House of Lords.

The Mental Health (Discrimination) Bill will shortly receive Royal Assent and become the Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013.

It tackles three key areas where discrimination is rife, yet should play no part in a civilised society:

  1. Members of Parliament – the rule that members who have been sectioned for six months or more are removed form office has been repealed, and other common law ruling disqualifying MPs from taking office on the grounds of mental health have been abolished;
  2. Jurors – the rule that anyone who had suffered from a mental condition is disqualified from jury service has been repealed, so that only the most seriously mentally ill (i.e. those liable to be or actually detained under the Mental Health Act at the time) are disqualified; and
  3. Company Directors – the rule that directors of public and private companies can have their appointment terminated on the grounds of mental health has been repealed.

Mr Barwell, and his House of Lords partner Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, must be congratulated in not only achieving government support for this Private Members Bill, but also achieving cross-party support in aiding its smooth transition through the process (with only a minor technical amendment).

It is only one small step, but may make a huge difference in the lengthy battle against the stigma of mental illness.

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