After what has been called an ‘extraordinary debate’ in the UK Parliament, laws barring people who have had severe mental health problems from being jurors, politicians or company directors are to be finally abolished.
Moving testimony from several UK politicians of their own experience of mental distress showed the devastating impact that mental health problems can have but also how the experience did not make them any less fit to hold political office. In fact, Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston said she was ‘absolutely sure’ her experience of depression made her go on to become a ‘much more sympathetic doctor’ and an ‘understanding MP.’
Another politician, Charles Walker, described how his obsessive compulsive disorder meant he had to do everything in sets of four, such as turning lights on and off or washing his hands. He explained ‘counting becomes very, very important’ and added that the illness had taken him to some ‘quite dark places.’
Being able to talk openly about experiencing mental distress is something that the UK group Time To Change believes could help end the detrimental stigma many of those with mental health problems face. The organization is currently asking people to help break the silence around mental health by pledging to start a conversation on the issue. As its Director, Sue Baker, explains, “we want people from all walks of life to be able to” talk about mental health and so “it’s great to see politicians making a stand.”
The upcoming changes to UK law on mental health discrimination will finally bring the country into line with the landmark Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that was signed at the United Nations in 2006. Under this convention, those with disabilities such as mental health problems are ‘equal before and under the law.’
While UK progress on this issue has been severely overdue, it will hopefully act as a powerful step to improving the treatment of those who experience mental distress. As a previous campaigner at Mind, the UK’s leading mental health charity, I know how far there is to go before a mental health diagnosis can no longer lead to discrimination. Currently, mental health service users are routinely harassed, often left without adequate care and are sometimes abused by a mental health system that is meant to protect them when at their most vulnerable.
We need more bravery from those in power to act on behalf of those with mental health problems. But, for today at least, we can celebrate one act of courage from politicians that will make a real difference.
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