One year on
One in four of our constituents still believe we should have been barred from holding public office on the basis of our experiences of mental ill health.
3rd December 2013, 3.29pm | Written by Ken Skates AM
It goes without saying that I, like my other three colleagues, felt nervous ahead of the debate and certainly uneasy about the response it would provoke. This was based on the facts that we were to talk about during the debate - notably the sad statistic that one in four of our constituents still believe we should have been barred from holding public office on the basis of our experiences of mental ill health. Rarely as a politician do you actively promote something that has the potential to alienate yourself from a quarter of your electors!
Over the weeks and months that followed the debate I came to appreciate that while it was a big decision for David, Eluned, Llyr and I to disclose our respective experiences of mental illness with the world, there are many, many more examples of people still suffering in our communities with this illness. What the debate did was to help lift the lid on mental ill-health and fuel a much needed discussion on the topic.
Immediately after the debate took place we all received comforting congratulations and some heart warming messages from people, often strangers, whom it had helped. I received particular strong support from fellow AMs across all parties as well as receiving great backing from my constituents in Clwyd South.
There was no doubt that we had done the right thing, but having assisted in opening up a much needed discussion I felt it would have been an unacceptable absolution of responsibility to then return to silence on the subject.
So I made a concerted effort to identify where discussions on mental health could help challenge discrimination and get more people talking in a safe environment. It was over the course of several months that I met people with inspiring, but often heart wrenching experiences of mental ill health that put mine into the proper context it belongs. From student halls to community centres, working men's clubs to women's institutes, where I shared my experiences with people I always found others willing to add more.
The experiences I learned of were often more challenging than what I went through and I came to appreciate the immense spectrum of illnesses and conditions that exist in all our communities and the extent to which they can be debilitating and inhibit people as they strive for fulfilment in life.
In sharing our life experiences we form bonds, develop an affinity with one another and build respect. And we also create avenues for trust and mutual respect to flourish. Consequently, in sharing what many perceive as weakness can actually be of enormous benefit, not just in terms of challenging stigma, but also in strengthening unity, trust and respect.
During the course of meeting people from all walks of life who have experienced mental illness it has become clear that solutions to causal factors which lead to a vast range of conditions are within our power. Of course there are people with mental illness caused by physiological rather than environmental factors, but for millions of people in Britain the cause of their suffering stems from life experiences that damage self esteem, confidence, a sense of value and place in the community.
So more recently my focus has been on challenging the negative factors that can contribute to depression, anxiety and other forms of emotional illness. More often than not, these factors also attract stigma and prejudice, so sufferers of mental illness often face discrimination on two, three or four fronts.
In this regard, sexism, homophobia, ageism, racism, discrimination against physical disabilities, lack of compassion for the unemployed, religious discrimination and also a lack of understanding of those who've suffered abuse all need our collective and concerted attention. So as we seek to end discrimination against mental illness let's also work together with friends and colleagues in other charities and organisations - and across the political divide - to end all forms of discrimination and prejudice that can cause emotional distress and mental illness.
Upon being appointed Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology on June 26 the First Minister illustrated his administration's commitment to improving mental health and ending discrimination with clear action. I wasn't just immensely grateful for the invitation to serve in government, I was also hugely grateful that he had taken the lead and shown his government was a progress force - that as far as the Welsh Government was concerned, the Time To Change had already arrived. That made me very proud; proud to be serving in Carwyn Jones's government and proud to be Welsh.
Finally, I'd like to pay tribute to Bethan Jenkins AM, who joined us recently in sharing her experiences of mental illness. Bethan's contribution to the Time To Change campaign has been particularly powerful and deserves recognition. I hope more people throughout society will join the discussion and that together we will be able to eliminate discrimination against mental illness - and the causes of mental illness that are often rooted in other forms of discrimination, isolation and damaging life experiences.
Ken Skates AM is Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology and represents Clwyd South for Welsh Labour.
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