MP for Windsor
Working Hard For You
Windsor MP speaks out against stigma surrounding mental health

This is taken from the official record of the House of Commons’ Hansard from a debate on mental health on the 24th of February 2015:

Adam Afriyie (Conservative, Windsor): I was not sure whether I would make it to this debate, given my other responsibilities, but I am very glad that I have. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for scheduling the debate, and Paul Burstow for opening it.

This is an important debate, not only for those with mental health challenges who are unemployed, but because it is something that I think strikes at the heart of what we are all doing in politics. With millions of people affected—one in four people will be affected by a mental health challenge in their lifetime—this issue lies at the heart of what it is to be human, to be British, and to be part of a democratic society. Right now in this Chamber, across the House, in our offices and across the country, probably one in six or seven people is struggling with some form of mental health challenge. That says to me that it is part of the normality of the human condition, and surely as Members of Parliament and Government, and as law makers, we must bear that in mind when making the laws of the land.

Across the Conservative Benches, and perhaps across the House, it often seems that our objective in politics is to seek the greatest level of utility for the greatest number of people. It strikes me, however, that GDP growth, incomes, salaries, and the growth in physical goods and services that we consume, is not necessarily the best aim. Indeed, I am not sure that that is the fundamental aim we all share, and it seems that a better motto, modus operandi and objective—one that I suspect we all share—would be to create the greatest level of happiness for the greatest number of people. It is not that as politicians we can work out how to make people happy—that would be preposterous and ridiculous—but some things are certain to make people unhappy, or to create stress and the sense of a lack of control that leads to a greater prevalence of mental health challenges.

When I first arrived in Parliament in 2005 I co-wrote a pamphlet entitled “The Forgotten”. My chapter was on those with depression who, almost by virtue of that condition if they are going through an experience at the time of an election, are kind of disfranchised from society and the democratic process. One of my burning passions is to ensure that everyone, no matter what their background or mental health condition, is able to participate in the democratic process, and is also never forgotten.

We certainly do not know how to create happiness—I would be very nervous if anyone suggested that they know how to create happiness for somebody else. However, when it comes to public services and law making we can do a lot to remove the causes of unhappiness, depression, or the exacerbating factors that lead to greater levels of depression and mental health challenges.

On the causes of mental health challenges, there is certainly a degree of genetic propensity—that is becoming ever clearer as scientific research progresses. There are also specific causes of such challenges in life, such as bereavement, certainly of a close family member. I thank Jim Shannon for his comments on the fact that in troubled zones during times of war or conflict the incidence of mental health challenges rises immediately because of changes to what is going on around people. Mental health challenges can be brought forward or exacerbated by accidents, or by the loss of a job or a divorce. Those are known causes or accelerating factors for mental health challenges, and are things for us to consider when making policy.

One area is almost entirely within our control—this is why I am delighted to participate in the debate today—because we can have an impact on the welfare and benefits system, and on how the state enables or helps people to find employment, or to get training or education. I was particularly mindful and supportive of many of the comments made by Mr Jones about the systems we introduce for getting people back into work, or identifying whether they have challenges. One of the greatest forms of stress and pressure—which can cause depression and trigger other mental health challenges—is a feeling that our life is out of our control. We have a complicated benefits system, and people have to jump through many hoops to achieve recognition within it. 

Kevan Jones (Shadow Minister (Defence)): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to tailor-make back-to-work programmes and recognise that on some occasions it might take longer than others to get people capable of work? We also need a system that allows people with long-term mental health issues who are not going to work at least to make some positive contribution to society. 

Adam Afriyie (Conservative, Windsor): The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head—that is precisely it. The distribution of traits within mankind and the British population is like a bell curve. Every person is unique. There are very few identical twins. Certain mental health conditions require a longer period of adjustment before people are able to participate in the workplace or in voluntary activities that make a contribution to society. Any system must be flexible enough to recognise that difference.

On the feeling that one’s life is out of one’s control, let us imagine—I will create a caricature here—someone from a tough background with literacy difficulties, perhaps dyslexia, who has just gone through a divorce and is presented with forms up to 70 pages long when trying to get some form of support from the state. The idea that someone who is in a very difficult state is able to navigate this incredibly complex system is tantamount to mental cruelty. There have been cases in the press recently where parents of children with difficulties have had to deal with a stream of health workers, disability benefit support staff, jobcentre workers and council workers knocking on their door. That can create a huge amount of stress and a sense that life is beyond one’s control. We have to be mindful of that and ensure that public services fit people who are going through a mental health episode.

I want to say some positive things about mental health, unemployment and employment. Mental health challenges are part of the normal human condition. Probably one in four of us here will struggle with a mental health challenge at some point in our lifetime. I am sure that all MPs have seen people in their surgeries who present with a problem—for example, they are unemployed and are having difficulties finding work and navigating the benefits system—and realise that there is something more behind the initial problem. Sometimes it will be depression, bipolar or paranoia, and they will need further assistance and support.

If we are to have a society that is at ease with itself, the stigma of mental health conditions needs to disappear. It is part of our job—not just in this debate, but in our daily lives—to ensure that we are relaxed about talking about mental health conditions, no matter what they are. In many cases, I welcome the idea that people joke about mental health conditions. I do not mean that people should do so in a derogatory way, but that jokes are part of our normal discourse. Whether in Parliament, in Westminster or in a business, people stand by a coffee machine and talk about so and so breaking a leg when they were skiing. Everyone has a laugh about it, asks the person how they are and then writes their name on the cast. I do not want mental health challenges to be part of a sort of corridor whisper. We should be able to laugh and talk—“so and so is having a bit of trouble at the moment”—and be very relaxed about them, because they are part of our human condition.

Another positive thing about people with mental health challenges in the workplace is this: yes,British Telecom has recognised the benefits of employing people

who may have challenges, but a raft of smaller firms have also recognised those benefits. In my working career in the world of business in the 20 years before I entered politics—I suppose this is work as well—I came across many enlightened small businesses that, on many occasions, competed for people with mental challenges such as depression or bipolar. I will try to put this subtly. When somebody is struggling with bipolar and is in a good period, they can be exceptionally creative and productive. That is very useful, provided one recognises that when they are in a down period they need flexibility and understanding. A lot of small businesses would benefit from recruiting people with certain mental health challenges for particular roles in their organisation.

It is my experience, from having observed businesses over the years, that those that recognise these challenges and show flexibility actually perform exceptionally well. So even being less altruistic, this is a great opportunity to create work forces that are up to the mark, dedicated and loyal and which go the extra mile in the good times, because people with mental health challenges are a great resource on which to draw. As others have said, however, it would be helpful to have guidelines or suggestions, perhaps from the public sector but certainly from bodies such as Mind and others, on how to work with people with mental health challenges, particularly for small businesses.

I hope that Opposition Members will bear with me for a moment, because I want to touch on the coalition’s welfare changes, many of which were initiated under the previous Labour Government. In many respects, we should take our hats off to the direction of travel. One of the greatest pressures is to be young and unemployed and to feel unwanted, as it can exacerbate the feeling of isolation from society. However, although the welfare changes that the coalition has made or is seeking to make might not be perfect, they do represent the correct direction of travel. I know that many Opposition Members agree. If we can help somebody into work—not in a brutal way—we can give them that sense of meaning, control and well-being that comes from knowing that even if they have a mental health challenge they are still welcome in the work force. These are positive things that MPs can do to enfranchise the large minority that struggles from time to time.

Kevan Jones (Shadow Minister (Defence)): I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman—if it is the right type of help. However, as Jim Shannon and I mentioned, for someone suffering from a long-term mental health condition, this merry-go-round system we have is pretty brutish and needs refining. Otherwise, it will not only waste taxpayers’ money but create a lot of unhappiness and fear among people with long-term mental health issues. 

Adam Afriyie (Conservative, Windsor): I think we agree. Indeed, I was about to focus on how we could significantly improve the way the system works for people with mental health challenges. First, on public services, particularly welfare to work arrangements, we need to be very finely attuned to the processes undertaken. Somebody with a mental health challenge might initially appear to be absolutely fine, but if they are put through a very mechanistic—the hon. Gentleman said “brutish”—mechanistic process that makes no allowances for such challenges, it can do more harm than good.

Kevan Jones (Shadow Minister (Defence)): I do not disagree, but one of the fundamental flaws that I and others have been raising for several years is that Atos assessors are not mental health trained. Having assessors with expertise in mental health would be a huge step forward in helping those individuals, yet the Government have ignored the matter for the last few years. 

Adam Afriyie (Conservative, Windsor): I am not sure the Government have ignored it. I have been in meetings where it has been carefully discussed, so it is certainly on the agenda. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s general point, however, and I am sure we will get to it on the other side of the upcoming election. Thus far, the focus has been on shaping the overall system in the right way, but unquestionably it will need refinement to ensure that in the first level of interaction the system quickly identifies people who might require a greater focus on their mental health and well-being than the average person.

I can give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that once we are through this short period before the election, and if we are both fortunate enough to be here afterwards, I will be happy to work with him and others in the Chamber to ensure that mental health conditions are better recognised or integrated within the process. We had a huge mountain to climb just to change the system in the first instance, but greater sensitivity is certainly needed now.

Four or five years ago, in Windsor, I knocked on the door of a very elderly lady. She had found in her letter box a form connected with a consultation on whether a local development should proceed. She was clearly struggling with a mental health condition at the time, and was agonising over whether she should fill in the massive form. There was another form from the council, and another relating to planning. I almost did not have the heart, but just about had the heart, to say to her, “The form is merely about a consultation, and, given the hundreds of forms that will be sent back, what you write on this one may have only a very small impact on the outcome. You might be better off seeing your family, having relatives to visit, and actually enjoying your life.”

What I gleaned from that encounter was that having to deal with lengthy forms and deeply bureaucratic processes may—unnecessarily, in many cases—take away the quality of people’s lives, particularly when those people are unemployed. That, I believe, should be a secondary focus for us, and for any future Government. We should think about the way in which we ask people to participate in our bureaucratic procedures to obtain assistance and return to work. We should ask ourselves whether the length of forms is a problem, and whether matters could be dealt with a little more quickly on the telephone or face to face, given that that some people might be struggling with a challenge at the time.

I know that we are having a quiet afternoon in the Chamber today, but I think that we have a responsibility to continue to talk about this issue—not only in debates such as this, but in the context of every brief that we may hold, every Committee in which we may participate, and every Bill that we may examine. We must keep at the forefront of our minds the fact that a very large proportion of the British population are struggling with mental health challenges. Every policy that we create must be designed to reflect that, and to accommodate such people.

Here is one more idea that may be of use at some point in the future. I love the idea of the market. I love the idea of businesses competing to hire employees, and I love the idea that competing small businesses—as well as one or two larger ones—that are desperate to hire staff at a time of low unemployment will one day place an imprimatur on their websites and recruitment pages, declaring that theirs is a mental health-friendly working environment. Indeed, it would be curious if they did not do so. I believe that if small and medium-sized businesses—indeed, all businesses—do not take that route, they will be hamstringing themselves and preventing themselves from taking advantage of the best employees that they can recruit from the marketplace.

This is my vision for politics. I want to see a country that is at ease with itself, and with people from different backgrounds and different walks of life. A country that is at ease with itself must acknowledge that, at any one time, a large minority of its population will face mental health challenges, but that those people are equally part of society. The policies that we create in this place must be user-friendly, and take account of people from all sorts of backgrounds and with all sorts of conditions.

I am optimistic about the future. Why? Because there is no doubt that Labour, Liberal Democrat, Independent and Conservative Members all recognise that the issue of mental health represents a serious challenge for a large proportion of the population, and I am confident that any future Government will pay more attention to it than we have in the past.