Friday, 7 June 2013

Stephen Fry, the NHS and my being as mad as a box of frogs.

Over the next couple of weeks, I can promise you that there will be a lot of different things written about Stephen Fry and his disclosure that he'd attempted suicide last year. I realise that calling it a disclosure is the most horribly clunky language to use, but it's also right. It wasn't a confession, it wasn't a tell-all interview, he just told a room full of people. I haven't a doubt in my mind that given two weeks, Stephen Fry will have been called courageous and brave more times that you might care to remember. He'll be so safe a national treasure that the National Trust will put down a deposit. Whilst I don't disagree with any of that, I do think it blunts the power of his action. 

Stephen Fry, wearing a rather fetching hat.
In telling an audience, and listeners, or viewers, about such a private and lonely time, he will have blown the lid off depression and mental health issues for many people. For me, the real power of the thing was the fact that he didn't wait ten years to tell everybody on the pages of an autobiography - this was last year, this was recent, this was alive. Too often mental health episodes aren't seen from the present, they're seen as a retrospective glance to something that has passed. Stephen's choice has meant that rather than this being something that happened back then, that happened, but can be largely ignored, this issue is alive and real. That's something I have great gratitude for. 

A few years ago, different events led to me withdrawing from my English Literature course at the University of Sussex. I found that I'd been travelling home nearly every weekend, sometimes taking the four hour journey to Brighton for an hour-long lecture then coming straight back home to Somerset again. When I was at Sussex for any great length of time I would lock myself in my room and comfort eat to a horrible extent. My withdrawal was my acceptance that it wasn't the right time and that I couldn't take it. 

But that wasn't the end of it. My therapist tells me now that I'm probably severely depressed. I hadn't realised, because, like the rest of the world, I get on with things, and as a rule, I keep going. When you're a busy person, it's easy not to realise the fact that you're finding it harder to get proper sleep, or you have incredibly small personality changes, or you can't really get up in the morning. I didn't realise that anything was wrong until I started having panic attacks. Going into therapy actually really helped me realise how I was feeling. What's more, it isn't over. I'm forced to get out of bed every morning because the dog needs to go on a walk. Given half the chance, there's a great possibility I'd just stay there. There are still days when I wake up and I'm concerned for my own wellbeing because I actually feel that I'm dying, that very slowly, the light and joy that I used to find in everything is fading, and leaving for good. It's alive. The feelings and emotions are alive. This isn't something I'm over, it's something I'm still in the middle of and trying quite desperately to make sense of. 

Stephen Fry's comments bring mental health problems to life, and I for one am grateful for that. 

But, what does it all mean? Why is any of this relevant for Liberal Democrats? Because, as is often the case, we're not going far enough or fast enough to protect and support the mentally ill. 

I sometimes feel like Hillary looks in this picture -
like a bit of a nutter. *
I have real concerns that the changes to Clinical Commissioning will mean that whilst, yes, Doctors and hospitals have more freedom, they also have to worry less about how they're spending their money. By and large, I don't have many bad things to say about the Medical Practice in my home town in Frome. You can get an appointment pretty quickly, and the Minor Injuries Unit has always been really helpful. However, I'm fully aware that when I presented to a Mental Health Nurse with these problems, she said I had low self esteem and needed to use an online application to try and solve myself. Failing that, I needed to go to group therapy sessions on a short term basis, and failing that, they'd refer me to a Counsellor for six weeks. It doesn't take a genius to work out why exactly they suggested the cheapest option first and kept the treatment I really needed as a last resort. 

I'm concerned that the NHS reforms that have been made on our watch will mean that there's even less influence over how our local health services are run and what local priorities are. 

One thing I'd love to see, would be some kind of Mental Health Gold Standard, whereby, there's a certain expected level of care for those presenting with certain problems. The years of the postcode lottery are still upon us, with vastly different care being provided in different areas. I would support a properly consulted, properly costed plan that meant that the NHS had a clear duty of care, universal across hospitals and practices and commissioning groups. I won't pretend not to be troubled about the fact that we now have less and less power over how that is actioned. 

I'm all for reducing the excesses of 'big government' and I'm all for localism, but not when it makes little sense, and not when you forfeit the opportunity to make a real and direct difference to people's lives. Don't get me wrong. I'm not just ragging on the Lib Dems here. Labour are mostly to blame in many senses, because of the Primary Care Trust model. Regardless of the politics of it - more needs to be done to support people at what can be a very dark time indeed. 

So, a real thank you to Stephen Fry. Not because he's been brave, and not because he's now such a national treasure that he should be on tea towels, but because he was honest about his struggle. We all need to be open and honest about our struggles and concerns, maybe then, people will realise that Mental Health issues can affect us all. It affects Stephen Fry, and myself, and probably lots of the people reading this post. Only when we're truly open about all of this can we really hope to move toward a reasoned and fair-minded plan to help those struggling the most. 

* Whilst I'm a real Hillary fan, it is worth googling 'Hillary Clinton crazy', I think she must just have an unfortunately expressive face. Tyra Banks suffers the same thing, if you have time of your hands.


  1. Some mental health problems are not mental health problems at all.It's no surprise that a some schizophenics have celiac disease. Doctors can't be bothered to check things such as a patient's diet.Drinking alcohol can do no good but saying that is some kind of heresy met with denial by nearly all doctors.

  2. I completely a that it must be nigh impossible to make a competent diagnosis in just a the few minutes Doctors are allowed to listen to a patients view of the picture, when they don't have a clue to the background of that person.
    I used to know a lady who was very overweight... The Doctor kept prescribing her differing remedies... she told me once the reason for the obesity was that she and her partner partook of a relaxing smoke of an evening when the children had gone to bed... and she of course, suffered from 'the munchies'!