In a few years’ time when we look back on public attitudes to mental illness, I believe the Time to Change and Time to Change Wales campaigns will be seen as the crucial turning point.
I was one of the four AMs to speak out in an Assembly debate a year ago. That debate was itself a turning point in the Assembly’s development when candour on something so personal was seen as a source of strength not an admission of weakness. This was made clear to me by the remarkably supportive response from my colleagues and, indeed, members of the public. Perhaps even more poignantly, it was clear also in the number of colleagues and staff who wanted to have a word about their own condition.
The campaign has gone from strength to strength and increased its visibility with a superb advertising campaign. I get a thrill when I see the magazine and cinema adverts. It is with deep satisfaction that I think ‘you know, I’m part of that’. Others in the public eye – particularly celebrities in the arts and sport – have done great things to shift public attitudes. It is a really generous response to use celebrity in such a constructive way. But it is the testimony of people who are not in the public gaze which I have found most powerful. It means the campaign is really working.
What about my own health? Has taking part in Time to Change helped? It is difficult to say exactly, of course. Like any other chronic illness it has its ups and downs. While I have spoken about my own mental illness before, helping Time to Change has been a much more liberating experience. I do think it has helped increase my resilience. And for me resilience is important. It can prevent trigger points; or when one suffers an episode, limit it to a bad day rather than a wretched month. You see, I have at last stopped feeling guilty about my anxiety. While I still dream about a magic cure (why not, who wants to be ill?) managing my condition is more important than constantly trying to wish it away.
We are all vulnerable to ill health. It really is a normal but of course challenging part of being alive. Few will escape episodes of illness that require careful management. Whether these illnesses are physical or mental they are first and foremost just that – ill health. The trick is to manage illness so that we still get the best out of life.
Let me end on a very personal note. I continue to draw deeply on my Christian heritage although my practice is now weak. In Christ’s day physical illness was considered a form of punishment for unseen wrongdoing and sin. On seeing a blind man, the disciples asked Jesus ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed by him’ (John 9: 2-3). A difficult text which my more orthodox friends describe as a deep mystery. In our more secular age we might interpret it as saying illness is part of the natural world in all its wonder and tribulation. Without these wonders there would be nothing as biologically sophisticated as our brains. And brains of such wonderful complexity create the possibility, the tribulation of mental illness.
The Time to Change campaign may not be miraculous, but it is challenging some of society’s deepest prejudices about mental illness. Now that is something special to be part of!
David Melding AM is a Welsh Conservative Party Member of the National Assembly for Wales in the South Wales Central region and currently the Deputy Presiding Officer of the National Assembly.
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