Mental Health First Aid in the Workplace

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:29 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Johnny Mercer Johnny Mercer Conservative, Plymouth, Moor View 1:29 pm, 17th January 2019

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. He is right; the military has come a long way. It gets a hard time, but the Army in particular has come a long way on the importance of mindfulness and how much easier it is to keep a healthy mind than get better from a mental illness. I thank him for all the work he does on that. We all come to this place for different reasons, but there is no doubt that the mental health challenge of a decade and a half of combat operations has ripped apart the circle of friends that I grew up with, so I have a real passion for getting this right.

As the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree says, we need to look at this in a slightly different way in this country. We are very good in this place at talking from the Front Bench about what we are putting into services in terms of money and priority, and that is extremely important, but we need to turn the telescope around and ask what it actually feels like to be in the community waiting for access to child and adolescent mental health services or mental health treatment. That is the true metric of what we do in this place. I strongly encourage the Government to look at that approach.

Why am I so interested in this? As everybody now knows, I have had OCD for a long time. Obviously, I like to pretend that it is some sort of distant memory, but my close friends and family know that it is not. It is much better, but there is no doubt that, if there had been mental health first aid when I was a boy, growing up and going into the military, my life would have been completely changed. We cannot underestimate how important it is to intervene early, when someone is so much more likely to get better. I will never forget the Saturday afternoon when I ended up in the Maudsley, thinking, “How did I end up here? How did this all start?” If policies like this had been talked about 20 years ago, millions of lives would have been very different.

I talk about this because it sends a powerful message: you can get better. People think that they are managing their mental health for the rest of their life, they reach their zenith and that is it. I cannot over-emphasise how wrong that is. Clearly managing a mental health challenge is a difficulty, but it can absolutely be done, and the chances of doing that are exponentially increased by early intervention. If we can get into workplaces and say to people, “We take mental health as seriously as physical health,” we will affect millions of lives, which is ultimately what we come to this place every week to do.

I pay tribute again to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and the right hon. Member for North Norfolk, who have done a lot of the heavy lifting on this. There are not many people here today, but in some ways, that does not matter. There will be people following this intensely because they have a mental health challenge. They may be 15, 16 or 17-year-old young boys, like I was, who never talk about it and who learn about what is going on through their phone but do not even talk to their parents. When I spoke about my OCD in the Evening Standard, I had loads of phone calls the next day, but the best one was from a 16-year-old boy who said he had never spoken to his parents or anyone about it.

There will be a lot of people watching this debate who were devastated when it was cancelled before Christmas. They are the people we are here for, and that is why people like me speak out. It is not easy to speak about individual issues in this House, but I want to say to boys and girls who are watching this now and may be struggling: don’t think for a minute that because there are not lots of people here, and there is not the raucous shouting that we have seen in the last few days, this is in any way less important to many of us in this place. Just because we are quieter, it does not mean that we do not hear you.

There is a mental health revolution going on in this country—we have seen it start and people are talking about it. The Government have committed to parity of esteem. We are flicking over from meeting one in four mental health needs at the moment to one in three. Clearly there is a big unmet need and we have further to go, but it is an unstoppable direction of travel, and today is another point on that march.

I sincerely hope that the Government can take forward these recommendations. I slightly disagree with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree only on one point: parity of esteem does mean something. However, she is right: it does not if people in our communities do not feel it. It is not good enough here to say, “Parity of esteem is a wonderful thing. Haven’t we done well? We’ve put it into Government legislation.” It is meaningless unless the people who use the services actually feel like they are treated in the same way and have the same access to treatments as those with physical health problems. I commend the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree and the right hon. Member for North Norfolk for the march we are taking on this, together with the stuff we have done on money and mental health. In this Parliament of immense turbulence, for those who are watching—the quieter ones, whom I have spoken about—this march will continue. They have some wonderful advocates in this place and we keep going.