A year has passed since I took part in a debate in the National Assembly for Wales to share my own experience of mental ill health. I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on that time and how my decision to speak about it has affected my life since.
For me the story goes back around 18 months, when I visited the Time to Change stall at the National Eisteddfod in the Vale of Glamorgan. The campaigners on the stand were asking people to make a pledge to show how they would support the campaign. After several minutes staring at the card and wondering if I should, I wrote ‘I will be open about my own experience of depression’. It was the first time that I had admitted to it in public.
Shortly afterwards, I met members of the Time to Change campaign team and we discussed ways in which I could help. I agreed to write a blog talking about my experiences and suggested that we could table a debate in the Chamber to bring the issue to as wide an audience as possible. The campaign team discussed the idea with their contacts in the other three parties in the Senedd and I was thrilled when I found out that a member of each party had agreed to take part and that we could table a truly non-partisan, cross-party debate.
As we put the debate together, I felt enthusiastic and excited about the chance to contribute to what I consider an incredibly important issue. I also felt proud that there was something that I could do that might make a difference to the lives of people outside the political bubble. However as the date of the debate came closer, I also felt a significant level of stress and anxiety about the decision to speak out and how that might affect the way people see me in my role. Politics is, inherently, a popularity contest and I became extremely worried that people would believe I was not fit to do my job because of my history of post-natal depression. Our stock in trade as politicians is credibility and I became sick with worry that I had made a terrible mistake and would fatally undermine my own reputation. The fact that there were such well-respected members of the other parties, Llyr Gurffydd, David Melding, our Deputy Presiding Officer and Ken Skates, who is now a Minister, also willing to take that risk gave me a huge amount of comfort and enabled me to feel confident that however hard I might find it, it was definitely the right decision.
"I became extremely worried that people would believe I was not fit to do my job because of my history of post-natal depression"
After the debate I felt so proud and grateful to the members of the National Assembly for Wales. They listened in absolute silence to each of us and I received many messages of support and encouragement from across the chamber, including from people who I had considered staunch political opponents. I am also extremely grateful to my party colleagues and in particular all of our staff, who were, in all honesty, providing an informal counselling service for the months of October and November last year. Without them, I may well have chickened out and I feel blessed to have such friends.
It is never easy to admit to what many in our society, sadly, still view as a personal weakness and I can only applaud the hundreds of people who have written blogs and bared their soul to help end stigma against people with mental ill health. In my case, it was also something that I had very deliberately concealed from friends, colleagues and even family members in the past, partially because I had found it such an emotionally difficult thing to talk about and, if I am honest with myself, partially because I was ashamed of it. I had taken society’s stigmatisation of metal ill health on board and deep down inside, I believed it. The decision to speak about my own experience forced me to challenge the deeply flawed perceptions that had made me feel that I was in some way to blame. I am so delighted that I have done so. It has freed me from a hidden but deeply-seated source of personal anxiety and allowed me to move on in my life with much more confidence and happiness.
I believe that the decision to speak and be honest about my own experiences has made me a better politician because it has made me a more empathetic person. People have sought me out to talk to me about their own mental health problems and I feel privileged that they have felt able to do so. Similarly, when I meet people at my surgeries who have experienced mental health issues themselves, I feel that I can look them in the eye and say ‘I have been there too’ and more importantly ‘you can come back from this’.
"It is extremely important that we continue to share the very positive message that mental ill health is normal and nothing to be ashamed of"
Since the debate I’ve agreed to become a Time to Change Champion and I’ve hosted a Mental Health Awareness session for staff here in the Assembly too. I have also encouraged the Welsh Liberal Democrats to sign a Corporate Pledge in support of the Time to Change campaign. It is extremely important that we continue to share the very positive message that mental ill health is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.
Now that the issue is out in the open, I no longer feel that I have a dirty secret to hide at all costs, and what is more, I now know that I never did. For that reason, on a personal level, I am deeply grateful to the Time to Change campaign.
Eluned Parrott is the Welsh Liberal Democrat Assembly Member for South Wales Central. She spoke about her experiences of Postnatal Depression in a debate at the Senedd in 2012 and blogged about her experiences here.
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