Nick Clegg made me cry today.
In a good way.
His announcement of an extra £400 million of ring fenced funding to help people with Depression and Anxiety, with specific emphasis for children and veterans is another example of Liberal Democrat policy being put into practice and is a big Liberal Democrat win within the coalition. That sum is of course just for England, but there should be Barnett Consequentials for Scotland, too. One in four adults will experience, at some point in their life, some form of mental illness, and one in ten children between the ages of five and sixteen. Growing up, and mastering lessons at school are hard enough, but through a mental illness into the mix and you can see how those kids are going to miss out if they aren't helped.
The human cost is far more important - of those lives remaining needlessly unfulfilled, but the financial cost to the country of mental ill health is estimated to be around £100 thousand million. That's an awful lot of money.
Nick Clegg has always been passionate about improving mental health treatment, about early intervention to stop problems in childhood extinguishing a person's potential. One of his first major speeches as leader, in February 2008, was about this issue. Unfortunately the link to his actual speech doesn't work any more but you can get the jist. In September 2008, the Liberal Democrats passed some major policy on mental health, much of which is being enacted now. It's significant that it's Nick Clegg who is fronting this for the Government and not Andrew Lansley, a sign of how important it is to him.
The two big things for me is that an extra million people will get access to high quality, evidence based talking therapies which aim to cure rather than control. For too long people with Depression have just been prescribed drugs rather than that sort of therapy.
The video below shows Nick Clegg talking about this on BBC Breakfast this morning, available on the BBC website here. You can see that this is something he really cares about.
Nick said today:
"The evidence is clear: mental health needs to be addressed with the same urgency as physical health. We need to end the stigma attached to mental illness, to set an example by talking about the issue openly and candidly and ensure everyone can access the support and information they need.
"The strategy today shows how we will put people at the heart of everything we do, from a new focus on early intervention to increased funding for psychological therapy, so that everyone has a fair opportunity to get their lives back on track."Anyone who's watching Coronation Street at the moment will be aware of how soldier Gary Windass has struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on his return from Afghanistan. He's recently been sacked from the Army after assaulting a police officer when being put in the Police van triggered his claustrophobia. The Corrie writing team and actors have authentically portrayed something many families are going through.
It's disgusted me that our Governments have sent young men home from war and just left them to get on with it. The culture of military service can make it difficult to admit to problems and access help - and that help has been insufficient. That changes now with an extra £7.2 million in targetted support for veterans - access to psychological therapies, access to a 24/7 helpline run by the fantastic Combat Stress, online counselling, specialised therapies for veterans, and, crucially, specialised e-learning packages for GPs to help them treat veterans in the way they need to be treated.
Nick said about these measures:
"I'm pleased to be able to announce more help for heroes. For some the toughest battle of their career is after they have left the service.
"Many of our veterans have not been given the support they need or deserve to deal with their mental health problems.
"It is our duty as a Government to support those who make such sacrifices for us when they need it most."It's fair to say that Tony Blair's former spin doctor Alastair Campbell is not one of Nick Clegg's biggest fans, but he has today supported what Nick is doing.
If Nick Clegg is seeking to become the voice of the mentally ill within government, then he deserves support.So that's all the facts, what you need to know about the Government's plans. But there's more. I want to tell you why I think this is so important.
Imagine you're trapped at the bottom of a seemingly endless mine shaft. There is no light, and the walls are like glass and you can't get out. You exhaust yourself trying, but it feels like there's no hope and your efforts are and always will be worthless.
That's how I've felt, on several occasions, through my life. There have been three main occasions. The first was much of my childhood. It wasn't always as acute as that, but looking back on it, depression and anxiety were a major part of my life from as far back as I can remember. By the time I was 12, it felt insurmountable. I guess that weight didn't make me particularly likeable and I ended up being bullied quite mercilessly for the next three years which didn't do a lot for my mental health. I wrote about that experience a few months ago here. I know that my teachers were aware of some of the demons I was fighting - there were references to emotional problems on my school report when I was 8 years old, but nothing was done - I don't know what was available in those days, but I didn't get anything. I am fairly confident that if I'd had the sort of intervention that Nick Clegg talked about today, that my 12 year old self would have been stronger and less suicidal. There were some days when it was literally a struggle to stay alive. To this day I'm not entirely sure what stopped me ending my life, but I came very close. And nobody knew about it. The rising rates of suicide amongst young people show that too many aren't as lucky as I was.
After I was 15 or so, the acute Depression lifted. One thing I have learned over the years is that it always does eventually, but unless you have some decent therapy, it still hangs around, like an oppressive and unwelcome cloak. And then something else will happen and you hurtle back to the bottom of the pit again. That happened for me in the mid 90s. I am bad enough at the best of times, but this time the anxiety was crippling. There were times when I couldn't even go out. One year I had been perfectly happy to go off to New York, the next year I couldn't even go to my local shop. Luckily I had a GP who preferred the counselling approach rather than drugs, something which chimed with my own instincts. I understand that others might think differently, but for me drugs would mean ceding all sort of control over my own mind which in many ways would have been worse for me.
I had a long series of counselling sessions which I found enormously helpful. The outcome of that was that for the first time in my life I had energy to use on developing as a person, to expanding my skill sets (although I still haven't learned how to design literature), to enjoy a contentment and stability that I'd never really known before, where curiosity replaced fear.
Fast forward a few years to round about 2003 when I had to deal with a demanding and stressful situation over a period of more than a year. I buckled again, went straight to the bottom of the pit without passing go. I was lucky again at the new practice. Still no drugs and I didn't even have to go to hospital. I didn't even have to wait that long for treatment. This time I had the help of an absolutely fabulous Community Psychiatric Nurse who helped me recover and develop some techniques to avoid slipping again.
I just want to say something about talking therapies. Some people might think that's a soft option, you know, everyone sitting around in cosy armchairs talking about their feelings. I do know that it's viewed as something comic, indulgent, even, by some. Well, you just imagine finding, retrieving and opening every can of worms you've repressed and hidden away in your mind because they're too awful to deal with. Reliving those experiences, and rewriting the way your mind responds to certain situations, changing your reactions and your behaviour. That is Bloody Hard Work. I'd come out of sessions feeling like I'd gone 10 rounds with Mike Tyson, totally drained and exhausted and bruised. The CPN assured me that this was a) completely normal and b) a good sign. You really have to invest everything you have in the process, but, boy, it's worth it in the end.
Now, I've been in stressful and demanding situations since then but have been able to use the techniques I learnt to dig myself in somewhere close to the top of the mine shaft, and ultimately drag myself out. I think it was a testament to the success of the therapy (as well as the support and love of my friends) which stopped me sinking into Depression when I was ill for so long after Glandular Fever.
I don't know if I will ever fall to the bottom again. I do know that I've had more peace and stability in my life in the 15 years since I first started receiving proper treatment than in the whole of the 28 years before.
My experience is comparatively mild compared to others, and I've been very lucky in that when I've been most in need, I've had medical people around who have been able to recognise that drugs alone, or at all, weren't the answer. More high quality therapy for a million more people as announced today is such a good thing. It probably isn't enough, but it's a really good start.
I know from today's announcement that more will be done to identify and treat depressed and anxious young kids so that they are able to overcome it so much earlier, so they can concentrate their energies on building successful lives for themselves.
There have been many years when I've been working, but I've not ever really had a proper career which I think is in large part down to the effect that untreated Depression from a very young age had on me. That's why I cried this morning when I heard Nick Clegg talk about how this Government is going to start to tackle that. It makes me incredibly happy to think that children will not have to go through what I went through and won't be held back.
Mental health has been very much the poor relation in health service provision. There is still a whole load of baggage and stigma round this issue. Nick Clegg has cut through all of that and done something positive. It's a liberal approach that will literally set people free from horrible illnesses. It will save lives. Nick doesn't bother about stigma. He just does what he instinctively feels is right. I have never been prouder of him for the way he's championed this and delivered in Government.
Update: Susan Gaszczak has a fantastic piece here