As Mental Health Awareness Week begins, Christine Jardine MP writes about the importance of the help her late husband, the journalist Calum Macdonald, received and how politicians must turn talk about improving services into action.
Writing this column is something I should probably have done years ago.
Maybe if I had plucked up the courage earlier, Calum and I would have been able to lay the ghosts of his mental health problems before he died.
Perhaps I would have been able to learn more and would now be in a better position to help others.
I don’t know.
But, when we were at the centre of it, all I could do was think about getting the family through each day.
Most people who knew him were maybe unaware that my husband, the journalist Calum Macdonald who died two years ago last week, was bi-polar.
It’s not something he particularly hid, he just didn’t talk about it much.
But I do remember once, while he was well, he told our daughter that he never regretted having his condition.
It had, he said, given him an insight and understanding into an area which, in his line of work, is too often absent.
This Mental Health Awareness Week, I find myself, not for the first time, desperately keen to tell anyone who is worried about a loved one and their mental health that it can be ok. It can be hell, of course. It is undoubtedly stressful.
And short of Calum’s death, it is the most painful experience we went through as a family.
What it must be like if it is your child who is struggling with mental health problems, I cannot begin to imagine the pain and fear that entails.
But, with the right support, you can get through it. That is, of course, the key: the right support.
Calum’s illness in itself was not the cause of his death. That was a heart attack.
But looking back, there were aspects of his complicated mental health condition which probably stopped him going to the doctor when so many other people would have recognised they needed help.
That applies even more to his mental health than to his physical well-being.
I’m sure his was not first case that went undiagnosed, almost unnoticed, for years.
When this normally affable, tolerant, witty and always reasonable man started to lay down orders and dismiss every other opinion, and the person who had expressed it, as stupid, it seemed unusual. But that was all.
Then his normal cautious approach to finance – my sisters called him Captain Sensible – gave way to a reckless spending spree which we only just managed to stop before he ordered a top of the range BMW that we couldn’t afford.
That was worrying. But we put it down to excitement over the news that he was about to become a father for the first time.
It was only when sociable conversations became one-sided arguments with himself, going round and round, accusing somebody, anybody, else of arguing with him, pacing up and down and then shouting that I realised something was wrong.
It didn’t matter how little you said or how quiet you kept, once it started it was only ever going to go one way. Then just as quickly it became a depression that put him almost beyond reach.
I realise I’ve written almost 500 words and said very little.
However it’s important for what I’m about to say that there is no question of this being some political platitude designed to capture a public mood.
I’ve seen mental health issues at the sharp end and that is why I am determined, like so many others, that this Mental Health Awareness Week will be the last one before we make real inroads.
That is not to dismiss the work that has already achieved so much.
This weekend Princes William and Harry have launched their own mental health awareness app called ‘Shout’.
My colleague at Westminster Norman Lamb MP has done incredible things to remove the stigma of talking about it.
Both Governments at Holyrood and Westminster are acknowledging the problem and beginning to look at how we support those families who are going through so much worse than we did. But that’s the danger. We mustn’t confuse talking about it with action. We are all now well rehearsed in the figures that at some point in our lives one in three of us will experience a mental health problem.
But just think about that. Surely that means just about every family in this country will be affected in some way at some point?
And when you read the statistics it is, perhaps, one of the few times when the numbers themselves are actually frightening. In Scotland, the most recently available figures show that 72 per cent of young people seeking treatment were seen within the 18 weeks. That’s down from 77.5 per cent the previous year – and well below the government’s target of 90 per cent. For me, even 90 per cent is not enough.
Amongst that one in three who will experience a mental health issue, the most common illnesses are depression and anxiety. And twice as many women as men went to their GP to report their depression or anxiety. The suicide rate for men is three times higher than for women.
I could go on but, in truth, there really are no good statistics for mental health. I cannot imagine what it must be like to have to wait for help, and worry that it will come too late.
When we needed it, our GP was there straight away and offered daily support.
Calum had a consultation within 24 hours and the help he needed, from that moment for the next 22 years.
I will be forever grateful that we had that time, and that medical support allowed my daughter to know the affable, tolerant Calum.
But the fact that she also saw, at times, the problems her father faced has also, in some way, brought its own benefits. When I ask her, she says that she has learned to never make a concrete judgement on anyone. There may be a fuller story than the one we see.
What she argues is that the fragility of mental health can affect any of us and should be regarded with the same understanding as if it were a broken leg.
Perhaps one day it will.