Celebrity depression and ‘practising fruitcakes’

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T here are two nuggets of mental health news that have grabbed me today – the first about a celebrity and the second about an impending change in UK legislation.

I’m thrilled to see that Frankie Sandford from The Saturdays (who’ve had 11 UK top ten hits) has become an ambassador for mental health charity Mind. Singer Frankie revealed early last year that she has depression, having battled with negative thoughts and panic attacks on and off since she was 15, culminating in her hospitalisation last October.

Now the singer, aged 24, has become Mind’s youngest ever ambassador. “There is still so much stigma and fear around mental health,” she says, ‘”and I hope that by being an ambassador for Mind I can help raise awareness and get people talking about something that affects one in four of us.” Good for her. I’m punching the air (metaphorically, at least).

Frankie’s announcement coincides with news that the clunkily-named Mental Health (Anti-Discrimination) (No. 2) Bill, which has already passed all its stages in the House of Commons, has received its second reading in the House of Lords (which means it’s nearly law). The Bill (which, thankfully, enjoys all-party support and hasn’t received any votes against it) aims at preventing people with mental health problems from participating fully in society.

As it stands, you lose your seat in Parliament if you are sectioned under the Mental Health Act for more than six months (even though the Commons is, from what I can see, full of apparently ‘sane’ people making crazy decisions, day in, day out). You also can’t be a school governor if you’ve been detained in hospital under the same act, you can’t be a company director and you can’t do jury service (if you are a ‘mentally disordered’ person), even though all kinds of ‘normal’ people like bankers (OK, challenge me on that one…) are doing insane things to the economy that impact us all.

Through the course of the Bill’s journey through Parliament, several MPs have talked about their own mental health problems, including Tory MP Charles Walker and his OCD (he has described himself as a ‘practising fruitcake’) and MP Dr Sarah Wollaston and her post-natal depression. The Bill (which should become legislation soon) has been described by Lord Wallace of Saltaire as a “powerful and symbolic statement that discrimination against mental health is no longer acceptable.”

Too right – as it stands at the moment, discrimination is upheld by laws which imply, amongst other things, ‘It’s OK to boot someone out of their job as an MP if they’ve had a long spell in hospital for mental ill health.’ Imagine telling an MP they couldn’t come back to their job because they’d had a long spell in hospital for cancer or heart disease? I think we all know that wouldn’t happen. And quite rightly so.

At first glance Frankie Sandford’s revelations and the new mental health Bill appear to be incongruent, occupying two disparate ends of the news spectrum. But they are, I’ve concluded, happy bedfellows joined by a common theme – the need to effect a change in attitudes towards mental illness.

Sadly, we live in a world where people will rarely do something unless incentivised through financial reward or threatened with rules and laws. That’s where this change in legislation comes in – we need it because people arguably still see mental illness as a problem and people who have it as incapable of being truly responsible and  making important decisions.

 Of course mental ill-health covers a vast spectrum in terms of severity and some people will be rendered incapable of being in a position of authority by virtue of their illness, regardless of legislative changes. However, it may also be the case that a ‘mad’ person who has hit the buffers and been forced to reflect on their situation may make a better contribution to society than a ‘sane’ person who has never been urged to see the world in any other way. Someone who has been hospitalised, given proper treatment and come out the other side may end up with more strength and clarity than someone who has been lucky enough to remain mentally well (so far).

But as well as legislation we also need ‘real people’ like Frankie to stand up and be counted. My days on The Sun’s health section have made me only too aware of the power of strong case histories – people who were brave enough to say what has happened to them in the hope that their story might raise awareness amongst the public at large. It also rammed home the power of celebrity, whether we like it or not – a famous person who tells us about what they’ve been through is an incredibly potent thing.

I’m happy about the legislation because it’ll be there to be cited and applied and to hopefully re-shape attitudes by re-drawing boundaries, like the Race Relations Act 1976 and the Equality Act 2010. And I’m ecstatic about Frankie nailing her mental health colours to the mast. My only fear is that the impact of her revelation will be quickly forgotten – Jade Goody dying of cervical cancer prompted a dramatic surge in the numbers of women annually tested for cervical cancer, but three years on the numbers declined sharply in what experts dubbed the end of the ‘Jade Goody effect.’

Today is an interesting day for mental health, by my reckoning. And it shows how support for mental health issues can come from different areas of public life, both popular and constitutional – courageous figures like Frankie and changes in legislation. Now we just need to keep talking about it – mental health is a topic that needs to be kept on the boil.

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Freelance journalist and mental health blogger, based in London UK

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