Chris Bryant: Mental illness among MPs is nothing new, but at least we can talk about it now

A Political Life

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Wednesday was all handbags at dawn in the Commons, both at PMQs and then in the debate on Jeremy Hunt. But Thursday was quite different – a whole-day debate on mental health. Two confessional speeches have been particularly commented on. First was Kevan Jones, no shrinking violet, a former defence minister who knows what he thinks and can often be as tribal – and as blunt – as the worst of us. Yet here he was speaking without notes about how he had suffered from depression in 1996 and admitting, "What I'm saying is really difficult for me now."

Then Charles Walker, a smart, clear, always polite Tory, related how he has suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder for 31 years. Brave speeches, both, because the stigma attached to mental illness is still intense. It's why so many men self-medicate with booze or drugs. Equally depressingly, someone out of work for six months is six times more likely to suffer from a significant mental health problem. So today's high unemployment statistics could be next year's mental health crisis.

For all the government initiatives, we still know remarkably little about mental health. Medicine has made stunning advances in cancer care, but barely opened a chink of light on alcoholism, addiction, food disorders and depression. Talking therapies are often the preserve of the wealthy while poorer communities have to struggle by on pills.

Yet Kevan and Charles are certainly not the first MPs to suffer. One of the first Tory women MPs, Mavis Tate, suffered a breakdown in 1940, but went on to film one of the most moving pieces of Pathé news when she visited Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany soon after its liberation. Her cut-glass accent and pearls add to the shocking pictures of the tortured bodies. Yet the trauma of the Holocaust may have been too much for her, for in 1947 she gassed herself to death.

The value of my army manoeuvres

On Wednesday, the RAF hosted a Church House reception for the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, which puts MPs and peers in a uniform (with an honorary rank) for about three weeks a year in one of the armed forces. It's brilliant. I arrived in the Commons knowing absolutely nothing about the armed forces, yet hundreds of my constituents join up. The Army is still a sought-after career for youngsters in former mining constituencies, and Parliament constantly makes decisions about personnel, equipment and whether or not to send our troops to war.

So I learnt a lot on visits to the Shatt al Arab Hotel in Basra and to the metal factory in Banja Luka in Bosnia, especially because we weren't sitting around in suits or that strange parliamentary mufti of chinos and jumpers. We joined training exercises in the heat of Cyprus and the rain of Sennybridge in the Brecon Beacons. We were told why different armies use different rifles. We asked about boots, and armoured vehicle and troop protection. And about the strategy, the moral dilemmas, the inherent dangers in handing local security over to less-trained indigenous forces.

All too often the press glibly praises or slights the armed forces without the slightest understanding of the gritty details. Witness the Daily Mail's ludicrous and inaccurate brouhaha over the new Bomber Command memorial in Hyde Park.

There are rumours that the Government wants to scuttle the scheme, but without it MPs would have to rely on their own prejudice or that of the press – which would not be wise.

You can't pick'n'mix Leviticus

One of those at the Church House event was Desmond Swayne, the Tory MP for the New Forest West. He has written a far cleverer and bolder letter than I to constituents who moan about the prohibition on homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22. In his letter, he points out that by the same logic you can have slaves so long as you buy them in a foreign market (Leviticus 25:44), but you can have no contact whatever with a woman during her period (Leviticus 15: 19-24), and you may not approach God's altar if you have a sight impediment (Leviticus 21:20). For good measure, he adds that it is lawful for you to sell your daughters into slavery (Exodus 21:7), but people who work on the Sabbath should be put to death (Exodus 35:2). He asks whether the abomination of eating shellfish is as abominable as the abomination of homosexuality. And is the punishment for wearing clothes with mixed threads the same as for planting different crops in the same field (Leviticus 19:19)?

He ends with a flourish, "Is it really necessary to turn out the whole village to stone the offenders (Leviticus 24: 10-16)? Wouldn't it be simpler just to burn them in the same way as we do anyone who has sex with their in-laws (Leviticus 20:14)? I really hope you can help. There are still plenty more questions where these came from." I'm glad he's not sitting on the fence on marriage equality.

A secret code at the Leveson Inquiry

We all know that many of the witnesses at the Leveson Inquiry have been coached, but I'm struck by the ties the men have chosen. Cameron's was a plain satin number in evangelical bishop purple. Hunt wore a light blue patterned variety. James Murdoch wore a British tie with a stripe pointing to the left shoulder (unlike US ties which point to the right), as he did for his first select committee appearance. And most exceptionally of the lot, Rupert Murdoch wore the same light blue tie two days in a row. I'm presuming this was not because he can't afford two ties, but because the coaches had spent so long deciding which particular shade of light blue (similar to Mr Hunt's) denoted credibility that they weren't going to risk a second tie.

twitter@ChrisBryantMP

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