In the short time available, I wish to address two subjects. First, I shall consider mental health in the military and the excellent progress made since the election, and refer to the work of my friend and constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Dr Murrison. Secondly, I want to reflect on my experiences dealing with constituents over the past two years. I think that many Members have been surprised by the sheer number of individuals who come to surgeries with mental health problems and associated issues. I want to refer to several of my experiences with constituents.
Soon after I was elected, one constituent told me about the treatment of her brother, who had recently committed suicide. She was unhappy with his experience and that of her brothers and mother during the previous 20 years, so we convened a meeting with relevant health professionals. I sat in the room for an hour and a half, as we went through the history of that poor man’s experience over 20 years. We have had an excellent discussion this afternoon about the different investments, and new policies, resources and approaches, but it struck me in that meeting that the real challenge was to join up all the different components that make for a proper solution for that family as a whole.
We were given an excellent briefing in the run-up to this debate, but one comment, in particular, from Mind and Rethink struck home. They wrote that
“whilst many people with mental health problems receive excellent care, all too often people face barriers in getting the care that they need as people’s journeys to recovery are rarely linear or straightforward.”
That is the key issue. People do not know what to expect, and because many of these conditions are unseen and the future is unknown, a great deal of fear creeps into families doing their best for a struggling relative. That leads to great tension and anxiety, so it is incredibly important that as we move to a new commissioning environment, we give local providers of appropriate support a voice and enable them to be commissioned. These decisions must be based not on numbers and spreadsheets but on the practical experience of local people.
The “Fighting Fit” report was a valuable piece of work commissioned in the first few weeks of the Government taking office. It is important to think about mental health in the armed forces in the same way as in other areas, but it is difficult to do so, given the culture in that environment. We heard some excellent statistics and useful perspectives from my hon. Friend Sir Paul Beresford underscoring the fact that many people in the military suffering from mental health issues do not take their first step towards accessing care until more than a decade—13 years, on average, we are told—after they leave the services.
It is pleasing that progress is being made on the principal recommendations in the “Fighting Fit” report—on increasing the number of mental health professionals conducting outreach work, on the establishment of an online early-intervention service and on a veterans’ information service. That progress is welcome, but much more needs to be done to educate new recruits and personnel throughout their career on the need to be open about their mental health, to admit to it and to seek support from the relevant authorities.
As everyone has said this afternoon, mental health issues do not discriminate by age, background, career or profession. That is the key message that we need to get into every aspect of life in our country. We need to continue to de-stigmatise mental health issues. We need to work for earlier diagnosis and smarter commissioning arrangements, and to invest in preventive measures to ensure that we achieve the maximum benefit to our society—that is, a lower rate of mental illness in the future.
As someone who recently endured the misery of seeing those very close to me suffer when a relative was in and out of mental hospital, I realise that this issue is very painful and difficult to talk about, and I commend those Members who have spoken so openly about their experiences and conditions this afternoon.