The politics of mental health

A focus on ‘hard working families’ risks excluding those who need Scottish Labour’s advocacy most, writes GERRY KEEGAN


I’m sure you’ll have noticed the sound bite ‘hard-working people’ oft used by Labour politicians. I hate the phrase; and for why? It creates a perception of the deserving and undeserving in our society. If you are deemed hard-working, you are worthy of our attention. If you are otherwise, you are not.

To me this does not sit well. For many, working, hard or otherwise just isn’t an option. They are too unwell. Take mental illness.

‘Depression is the inability to construct a future’ wrote Rollo May, the famous American existential psychologist.

For Paul Reekie, one of Scotland’s brightest, most idiosyncratic talents found dead last summer in his Edinburgh flat, Rollo’s words were prophetic. His band, The Thursdays, had worked alongside Joy Division on Edinburgh’s Fast Product label. He had also played bass with Bristol’s The Pop Group. His published works included translations of the French poet Baudelaire, the collaboration Three Edinburgh Writers with Kevin Williamson and Barry Graham, and a poetry collection called “Zap! – You’re Pregnant”. His novella, “Submission”, appeared in the anthology “Children of Albion Rovers”.

Near his body were two letters lying on a table. One told him that his housing benefit was being stopped. The other said that his incapacity benefit was also being stopped. The ConDems had begun their work.

A member of the Hibernian counter-culture crowd that included “Trainspotting” author Irving Welsh, Reekie did not have his troubles to seek. It was evident he suffered from his own personal demons.

Paul Reekie died in a sea of statistics – statistics of which we in Scottish Labour would do well to be aware.

In Scotland two people each day take their own life. In 2007-2008, 843 people committed suicide, which is more than double the number killed on Scottish roads. This was the highest reported incidence for six years, and the third annual increase in a row. It equates to a rate of 16.1 per 100,000 people.

Depression is widespread. One in five of the population of Scotland will experience it at some point in their lives. The situation is exacerbated if you live in a deprived area where risk of depression rises to one in four.

Globally the World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that depression is soon to be the second biggest cause of illness world-wide. In 2004-5, over three hundred thousand people in Scotland consulted a doctor for depression. Research shows that as many again had depression but did not present themselves for medical help. On top of those affected personally, it also affects friends, family, neighbours and employers.

In 2009 NHS Lothian released figures which show that 77,000 people over the age of 18 were diagnosed with depression in 2008. This is compared to 68,000 from the previous year. Wise politicians and health experts warn that the problem will get worse as unemployment levels grow and people’s financial situations worsen.

The ConDem government’s ‘cut till it hurts’ policy, as abetted by the SNP here in Scotland, have had and will have drastic human costs. They seem oblivious to this.

Almost three-quarters of suicides in Scotland are by men, with young people particularly vulnerable. This was brought to our attention again in 2010 with the apparent suicide of four young men in Dundee in the space of 10 days.

What is particularly concerning is that men are less likely to seek help when in a vulnerable state. Scottish male machismo rails against men admitting mental health issues such as depression. While the condition afflicts men as much as women, men account for only a third of GP consultations.

The exact cause of depression is not known, although medical researchers have a number of ideas. For some people it can occur for no apparent reason, others can pinpoint a trigger such as a difficult life event, a bad time in their past or some sort of trauma. It appears that in some families there can be a genetic element.

Whatever the cause, it is important we in Scottish Labour remember that depression is as much an illness as is cancer or diabetes. There is a lot of stigma around it and somebody may feel weak or ashamed to have depression. Thus portraying a sufferer as workshy or ‘at it’ is not helpful. We in Scottish Labour promote this stereotype and should know better.

As the party of social justice, equality and compassion it is up to us and those around the sufferer to help them ‘talk about it’. This is their first vital step to recovery.

Symptoms may include feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, anxiety, self-hatred, negativity, an inability to enjoy things which were once pleasurable in life, guilt, agitation, weight loss or weight gain, loss of energy or motivation, loss of sex-drive, disturbed sleep, poor concentration, indecisiveness, irritability, anger, social withdrawal, unexplained aches and pains, self-harm and recurring thoughts of death or suicide.

If you or someone around you has five or more of these symptoms during a two week period it is vital to consult your GP.

Most people with depression recover and go back to leading a normal life. It is important however that they seek help. The following offer excellent advice.

Breathing Space: 0800 83 85 87 – Helpline for young men aged 12-40 who are experiencing difficulties and unhappiness in their lives and for their friends and family.

Depression Alliance Scotland: 0845 123 2320, – Telephone information and other support for people affected by depression. Information about symptoms and treatment, listening support and signposting to other agencies.

Gerry Keegan is a psychologist, author and researcher. He is a member of Rutherglen & Hamilton West CLP, and a founder member of the ‘Scottish Labour for Scotland’ Facebook group. Contact him on



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One thought on “The politics of mental health

  1. Firstly regarding the SNP abetting the Tories cuts policy – that is just wrong. You are trying to re-write history with a vengeance. Let’s go back to the Westminster election of 2010. The SNP campaigned on a platform of opposing Westminster cuts. Labour campaigned on a platform of halving the deficit over 4 years. That would have meant cuts. Big cuts.

    That wasn’t the only difference. If the axe had to fall, the SNP also suggested that it could fall in different places – like scrapping the £100 billion replacement for Trident, the UK’s deep depository for nuclear waste, abolishing the House of Lords and the Scotland Office and killing off the remnants of the ID card programme.

    As we all know the SNP were well and truly gubbed in the Westminster election in Scotland and Labour won convincingly. It is not acceptable therefore that you now want to re-write history and disown the policies that Labour MPs were elected on. The fact is that if your party had won the Westminster election we would still be facing deep cuts. And your party prioritised spending on nuclear weapons before spending on welfare benefits or social care.

    Having said that I fully agree with what you are saying about the disgraceful way that the DWP interacts with people with mental health problems. Sending letters written in bureacratic jargon to people who are mentally ill is completely stupid. Unless they have a welfare rights worker, or someone else who is savvy enough to understand how the system works supporting them, it ican also be completely pointless.

    Personally I believe that there should be a level of professional liability attached to DWP staff dealing with people who have a mental illness in this context. Rather than just sending out letters DWP staff should be required to establish to their satisfaction that their clients a) understand what is happening to them with regard to their benefits and b) understand all of the options which are available to them for example that they can make a fresh claim pending the outcome of an appeal. First and foremost DWP staff ought to be trained to prioritise the duty of care they should have towards their clients. If that was the case then tragedies like the case you cited could be avoided and sick people would no longer be targeted in such a shocking and disgraceful way.

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