'We should all be thinking and talking about mental health on a parity with physical health' - An interview with Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West


Online Wellbeing Editor, Leila Mitwally, along with Burst Radio presenters Ella Fraser (Mental Healthy?) and Hester Careless (Odd One Out) had the oppunity to interview Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West, about her views on government mental health policy, mental health support in Bristol and her own personal mental wellbeing.

As we know, you’ve worked for the Women’s Aid Federation of England, and also Respect before your current role as MP for Bristol West. When did the issue of mental health first come to your attention?

With Respect, I was working with perpetrators of domestic violence, and at Women’s aid I was setting policy for what goes on in refuges and outreach for women and children who’ve experienced domestic violence – and in both of these groups there are really complex mental health implications.

There is a mental health crisis that is presenting itself to me in my case work as a member of parliament

When working with domestically violent men and male perpetrators, we were using the techniques of mental health practitioners: we used things like CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] - which wasn’t to give the perpetrators therapy, but to use therapeutic techniques to try and change behaviour. So really, mental health has been part of my working life since the beginning in one way or another – though I’m not a mental health practitioner!

Do you believe that we are experiencing a mental health crisis in the UK and particularly in universities?

Yes I do. There is a mental health crisis that is presenting itself to me in my case work as a member of parliament.

I don’t think it’s just in universities – I think young people generally are experiencing high levels of mental health crises – but I think it sometimes presents itself more visibly in universities because there is a body in which it can present itself, whereas young people more widely who might be at the workplace or doing apprenticeships don’t have that body to coalesce within as students at universities do.


Facebook / Thangam Debbonaire - MP for Bristol West

What do you think of the claim that this is a so-called “snowflake generation”?

There’s a parallel here with the domestic violence movement: in that once we raised the awareness of domestic violence, and showed people what the signs and symptoms were, we saw higher rates of domestic violence.

It wasn’t that people were suddenly experiencing more violence, it was just that we were noticing it more. And that’s a good thing, because it means more people getting help. I think there’s a parallel there with mental health awareness – with people of my generation saying “you young people are all snowflakes, pull yourselves together”. I think some of this is out of regret: that the mental health problems in our own generation weren’t better picked up.

1 in 4 people across the UK are experiencing mental health issues every year, and 60,000 people in the city of Bristol. Why do you think that Bristol is particularly affected, and do you think this has a link with the high rates of drug use in Bristol?

Bristol’s one of those wonderful cities that is partly a victim of its own success. We’ve always been ground-breaking in how we treat drugs, mental health and how we respond to forms of homelessness – but as a result, the word on the street – and I use the term street loosely – is that Bristol is the place to go to if you’re in any sort of difficulty.

That’s a reputation I am proud of, but it does carry its own consequences. People will often come here for drug treatment, or to try and get off the streets, and their problems don’t disappear when they enter the city. I think this does give rise to increased levels of mental health problems, homelessness and drug addiction, and though those three groups are not the same groups, there is some overlap.

People should not be afraid to say that they’ve had mental health support

That leads to a complex mesh of problems, whereby for example if your homelessness is addressed but your mental health problems and your debt problems aren’t, then you might soon find yourself in more difficulties and you might then lose the home – which may then send you back to your original problems, or others.

If you don’t fix everything at the same time, which very few local authorities are in a position to do because of austerity, then you’ll keep experiencing those problems.

What can we do as a Bristol community to support issues of mental health and wellbeing within our city?

For a start, let’s stop using language like “snowflakes”. In my parent’s generation, nobody referred to cancer, it was just a “long illness” at best. That is no longer the case – when I was diagnosed with cancer I rang up my mum and said: “mum, I’ve got cancer”, and she was shocked just to hear the word, because her generation just doesn’t say it.

I think it’s similar now with mental health, and we haven’t got all the way there yet. People should not be afraid to say that they’ve had mental health support. I personally have, and I’ve valued it as it’s got me through some difficult times. We should all be thinking and talking about mental health on a parity with physical health.

On a practical level though, there are all sorts of schemes now which train people in the workplace to recognise symptoms of mental health problems. Also, we should be making the arguments for proper funding of mental health services.

A report last year found that 40% of mental health trusts in England have seen cuts to their budgets and figures show that they receive none of the extra £8bn funding for the NHS. With the increased awareness around mental health, how is the government justifying these cuts and what would you propose as a representative of your party?

I mean, you’d need to ask the government how they justify them because I frankly do not know. They claimed in the last two general elections that they were in favour of parity of esteem between mental and physical health, and as I sit in parliament representing this constituency and as part of the party challenging Jeremy Hunt, it seems as though he thinks that by saying it over and over again it will magically happen.

Off The Record have said that the government’s changes don’t really address what’s actually causing mental health problems, and those causes remain part of our social and cultural lives. It’s no good just putting a sticking plaster over the problem. They’ve also said that the government’s strategy is placing the problem in the heads of young people, a sort of ‘you can treat your way out of a public health crisis’.

what are we asking young men to be? And what does masculinity mean in the 21st Century?

To use the same parallel with cancer as I think it’s useful: we could keep treating cancer (as with mental health) or we could treat cancer, develop better cures and teach people about how to reduce the risk of cancer, and look at societal risks.

Samaritans tells us that male suicide rates are consistently higher than female rates across the UK and the Republic of Ireland, most notably five times higher in Ireland and three times higher in the UK. Do you think we are providing enough support for men and boys in Bristol?

I know many young men and boys who’ve dealt with serious mental health issues, and I know two who as a consequence have committed suicide – it felt in some ways very gendered, as though the expectations on them as young men were not ones that they could live with.

But they were talented young men, and there’s something there that makes us question: what are we asking young men to be? And what does masculinity mean in the 21st Century? How should we help young men to make sense of that in a way that’s healthy for them?

These techniques aren’t incorporated into our education: and I think that having compulsory PSHE (Personal Social and Health Education) will help – the government agreed to that after pressure from my party. It would be a missed opportunity if we don’t get that implemented soon because that’s the perfect setting for young people to work through what it means to be a young woman or a young man – or what it means to not be sure about their sexuality or gender.

**Given your high-pressure job, how do you take care of your own mental health? **

In my first year, I had some really good mental health support – because I was ill. I was elected on May 8th 2015, and on June 16th of that year I was diagnosed with cancer.

At first I was doing ok, through the bad weeks and good weeks (because there are both!) but in the autumn I found that I was struggling a bit to make sense of how to do this thing called being and MP and at the same time having a life-threatening illness.

I had some excellent help from a psychologist, who helped me do some work on focusing on my values, which helped me think about how these would be experienced by somebody who comes into contact with me as an MP – both when I have cancer and also when I don’t anymore, and that’s really stayed with me.

I got a good sense of the fact that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t work 14 hours a day, seven days a week

They also helped me process other things – like the fact that you’re never not an MP. I’d be going into oncology and a nurse taking my bloods would say “oh you’re my MP!” and would want to talk to me as her MP rather than as a patient. I can’t fault the quality of my care, and I know people didn’t realise they were doing that. But the work with my psychologist helped me deal with it – it made me think about what this nurse and I were getting out of the interaction and how she was experiencing me.

Also, because I was ill, I got a good sense of the fact that it’s not the end of the world if you don’t work 14 hours a day, seven days a week. If you get good staff around you and have good teamwork, with some routines and exercise built into your day your mental health will benefit, and though I learnt these things through treatment, they’ve done me more good since I stopped having treatment and went back to work.

Do you think that the culture of the Houses of Parliament is conducive to good mental health?

No! Not even slightly! We’ve had some late night sitting recently where we were voting at one or two o’clock in the morning on things that really matter. We might have been debating all day, without a breath of fresh air since the morning.

You could say that it’s a big job and you have to just step up to the plate – and I don’t disagree, but I’m not sure that it’s good for anyone’s mental health. There is still a very male dominated culture, which I’m not sure is good for anybody.

I’ve heard male colleagues talk about it affecting their relationships with their children, because the culture of parliament is still very much predicated on a really old fashioned notion that you toddle off to your barristers chambers in the morning, you toddle in and you do a bit of debating and then you sit around the bar and do a bit of voting.

Thankfully, partly because we’ve had a chunk of women come in, some of that has changed. We still work long hours but they’re much more structured and reliable to a certain extent. There is a gym and a crèche now for instance, and it’s these things that have really helped people to get a sense of balance in their lives.

From your experience as a student, what advice would you give to students to look after their mental wellbeing?

Drink less, get a good night’s sleep, do some exercise, and make the most of your studies and the other opportunities that university gives you as they’re really hard to recreate later on. But honestly, my top one would be drink less!

Particularly at Bristol there is a big drinking culture in parts of the student body – do you think there are things we can do to allow student culture on a national level to be more conducive to good mental health?

I think Bristol has taken quite a lot of responsibility for the care they provide and the prevention measures for keeping students mental health up.

I was a trustee of the SU for a few years and I felt very proud of the fact that they run mental health support services and take a strong role in trying to promote the sorts of activities and societies that are likely to improve students’ mental health.

I would like the university to be paying attention to prevention measures as well as response

People think of these things of clichés but they’re a really good opportunity for students to learn about themselves and what they like. I’m proud of the fact that the university is recognising the impact mental ill-health can have and are investing in mental health services.

At the beginning of the year, there was £1 million invested in the mental health support system at the University of Bristol – do you think that this is enough to significantly improve the services, and what areas do you think this should be invested into?

It’s hard to say what is enough. I would like the university to be paying attention to prevention measures as well as response. I do think that just the accessibility of mental health support could be improved on, and I see that some students find it harder than others to get access.

Your early career was as a professional cellist. Do you still maintain and practice now?

Absolutely! In that first year, I spent quite a lot of time reconnecting with pieces of music that I hadn’t listened to in years. I can and do still play – once a year I get together with my mum and her friends to play music, and it will do all of our wellbeing an enormous amount of good – it’s those kinds of things I make sure to plan into my life.

Everyone’s got something, if it’s not music it might be books – I always have eight or nine books on the go and am never without my kindle. Even if you’re on a really crowded tube you can get your kindle out and sink into a book. These things are just as important as eating your five a day or running 5k twice a week.

You can listen to the full interview on mixcloud.

Featured image: Facebook / Thangam Debbonaire - MP for Bristol West

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