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22 June 2012

The vulnerable mind

While David Cameron was hogging the media limelight in front of Lord Leveson last week with the disclosure of the “Yes he Cam” text from Rebekah Brooks and the sports’ writers were midway between Germany’s defeat of Holland and Spain’s annihilation of Ireland, something of far greater significance was happening in the House of Commons - backbenchers were debating mental health. What was extraordinary was the passion of all the speakers. Yet it was a far cry from the yah-boo politics of Prime Minister’s Questions.

MPs of course spoke from their constituents’ experience from meeting them in their surgeries. However four mentioned their own experiences: Sarah Wollaston and Andrea Leadsom both talked about their post-natal depression, and being convinced that their family would be better off without them. Ms Leadsom, the Conservative MP for South Northamptonshire, said: “It is unbelievable how awful you feel when you are sitting with your tiny baby in your arms and your baby cries and so do you. You cannot even make yourself a cup of tea. You just feel so utterly useless.” Charles Walker described with poignant wit his obsessive compulsive disorder as “sometimes benign, often malevolent…. like someone inside one’s head just banging away”. And Kevan Jones described his deep depression related to work and other things going on in his life. “This is the first time I have spoken about this….  Like a lot of men, I tried to deal with it myself - you do not talk to people.I hope you realise, Mr Speaker, that what I am saying is very difficult for me….  Whether it affects how people view me, I do not know; and frankly I do not care, because if it helps other people who have depression or who have suffered from it in the past, then, good.”

There is a stigma, even a denial, in our society about the reality of mental illness.This was highlighted in the report How mental health loses out in the NHS, published by the London School of Economics on Monday. “It is a real scandal that we have 6,000,000 people with depression or crippling anxiety conditions and 700,000 children with problem behaviours, anxiety or depression. Yet three quarters of each group get no treatment.” The depressive, Gerard Manley Hopkins, expressed the reality vividly:

“O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.”

No one is immune. Not politicians, not poets, not prophets, not pastors. Yet for many clergy, depression is an unconfessed burden, as they feel perversely compelled to model strength in their lonely leadership-roles, to meet their churches’ expectations.It’s perverse because neither the Bible nor heroes of faith nor our Lord himself modelled invulnerability. As Christians we do our neighbours no favours by hiding our real experience. Faith confers solidarity, not immunity. It’s no good pretending we find life easy. It fools nobody, and it helps nobody. In this at least we’d do well to learn from our politicians. Tell it as it is.

Michael Wenham– retired minister, active writer and blogger