When I fell off my attic ladder last year and ended up in hospital, it was the latest in a string of physical mishaps that led some of my friends to call me parliament’s Mr Bump.
First I had done in my knee running for a vote and ended up on crutches. Then I was assaulted on a train in a way that was not in truth very serious but people imagined was painful, particularly when a CCTV image of my rather well-built assailant was released to the media.
All of this was a bit embarrassing, but nothing to hide away or be ashamed of. Hell, I even agreed to let my local paper, the North-West Evening Mail, come and take a picture of me in hospital after my ladder escapade.
So, because brilliant, inspiring people have had the courage to speak up and make the case that my latest ailment shouldn’t be treated any differently from these physical injuries, I am just going to come right out and say that I am clinically depressed. I went to see a doctor this week who prescribed me medication to relieve my black moods.
I am very much hoping that my constituents and fellow parliamentarians won’t notice much of a difference from me popping pills. I have mostly managed to avoid moping about like Eeyore up until now, and am assured that the anti-depressants I am taking will not induce any inappropriate “you’re my best mate” euphoria in the House of Commons chamber.
But I felt I needed to do something because the painfully long time it is taking to recover from banging my head when I fell off the ladder means there are regular periods when I am left utterly drained by simple tasks and barely able to get out of bed – and that exhaustion can make me really down.
Despite being below par, I honestly think I have continued to be able to do a decent job for the area I represent as I have been recovering. But I am impatient to do more. And I just hate it, and hate myself, when I sit down to play with my wonderful daughters, aged one and four, but find within minutes that their boundless energy and chatter reduces my head to painful mush and I have to take myself away from them.
I actually took anti-depressants before when I was a student struggling to adapt to a new life, and again in the months of turmoil after my sister died ten years ago. They helped me get through those difficult periods then and I really think they will now too, not by changing my personality but in lessening the despair that sometimes comes when I have no energy. I am hopeful that relieving my depression will speed up my full recovery or at least enable me to do more in the meantime.
I have decided to make all this public because I derived such strength, though I never told them, from the way that my friends Kevan Jones, the Labour MP for North Durham, and Alastair Campbell have talked about their battles with depression. Their decision to be open and make a contribution to ending the stigma around mental illness has made it possible for me, despite the job I am lucky enough to have, to go and ask a GP for help. And so I want to make my contribution to tackling the stigma too, not just getting treatment for depression but being prepared to talk about it. Because – as Alastair says – the more people who are open when they suffer the sooner we will just come to view mental health problems through the same lens as physical injuries.
We have come a long way in relatively few years thanks to the way that charities like Mind and brave individuals have campaigned. Not much more than a decade ago, I remember when opponents of Frank Dobson’s bid to become London mayor used rumours he was depressed as a smear to suggest he would not be up to the job. That was a fairly controversial thing to do even back then, but distaste for the tactics was matched by widespread mocking - including a newspaper diary column starting a sustained “Cheer up Dobbo” campaign of smutty jokes to lighten his mood.
Stigma clearly still exists now – take some of the vile insults thrown at Alastair when he helped Ed Miliband take on Paul Dacre recently. But as a result of great awareness-raising initiatives like world mental health day earlier this year, the name calling seems more and more likely to be called out as unacceptable and wrong.
I will be the MP for Barrow and Furness for as long as my constituents want me, and I hope to serve my country in any way that I can. And yes of course I am worried about what people will think of me declaring that I will be representing them while taking anti-depressants (not least, I remember the outrageous way that Gordon Brown was asked the question by Andrew Marr during an interview at his final Labour conference as prime minister). But I really don’t think it need be a big deal. And if it does turn out to be, well at least I might make it a bit easier for next person who is in the public eye feeling like this.
So I am going to carry on getting on with the job of doing my best for my constituents. Feel free to try to cheer me up with smut if you want, but only if that is the kind of thing you would have done anyway.
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