Norman Lamb on why improving mental health care is so important to him

This interview with Norman Lamb in the Telegraph.

In it, he talks about why he is so motivated to change mental health care. We knew about how he and his wife Mary have supported their son Archie through battles with OCD and, for the first time, he talks about losing his sister Catherine to suicide last year.

Anyone who has gone through those sorts of experiences, or who has tried to get treatment for mental ill health, will understand the frustrations that he describes and will understand how that drove him on to transform as much as he could while a Minister.

If you have no experience of this particular field, be in no doubt that he is telling the truth.

The Telegraph article has a letter from a 9 year old boy with Depression which was read on the Today programme. It’s horrible to think of a young child going through such pain at all, but when you think they may have to wait years for diagnosis and treatment, it makes you so angry. You need to think of the consequences of that. Think of the impact of a year, or even two years’ wait. Think how much worse a condition can get in that time. There is often no quick fix, either, so there’s more time trying to find something that works. By that time, you’re probably talking about between a quarter and a third of your years in education which have been dominated by ill health. Think of the knock-on effects on life chances, particularly if you are not from an affluent background. It truly is a scandal that we tolerate this as a society.

Norman described how it was for him and his son Archie:

His son, Archie, now 28, has suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder since he was a teenager. “The problem is that OCD and some other conditions are trivialised too much so people think it’s just being a bit orderly about things,” he explains as we sit in his office. “It is in fact about coping with extraordinarily dark thoughts, distressing thoughts, and when I discovered that he had been trying to cope with this for probably three years before he came out in the open…” This obviously pains Lamb, as it would any parent. “And you think about the stress of being a young teenager, trying to cope with the normal strains of growing up. He was in the Norwich City football academy under pressure to perform and at the same time he was [also] trying to cope with these extraordinarily dark thoughts…”

Today, Archie is a successful music manager who launched the career of the rapper Tinchy Stryder. “He is in a much better place now, much stronger,” explains Lamb. But the journey to find him treatment has not been an easy one. “The services in Norfolk didn’t really provide any support to the parents of people [who were ill]. We’re reasonably articulate parents, and we had no idea what we were doing, whether the way we were dealing with Archie was helping or hindering him [OCD sufferers often seek reassurance that they are not bad people, or that they have not left the gas on, though providing this reassurance is the worst thing you can do as it only serves to reinforce the illness]. So, should we be reassuring him or should we be challenging him? Nobody told us.”

Then he heard about somewhere that could help Archie. Sadly, it was in another part of the country and NHS bureaucracy couldn’t cope:

In desperation, Lamb asked Prof Thornicroft if he had any advice on how to help Archie. “He said the guy to talk to was Paul Salkovskis [the head of a national OCD treatment centre in Bath, who was then at the Maudsley]. Now of course I’ve got the great advantage that I have MP after my name, and I got to talk to him for an hour. He said ‘it sounds like we could help Archie’, so we went back to Norfolk and asked if we could refer him to Salkovskis and they said ‘you can’t’.” Treatment could only be provided by the local mental health trust in Norfolk where Archie lived.

In the last decade, the NHS introduced something known as the ‘legal right to choice’, meaning you can choose where to be treated. However, for some reason, the issue of mental health was exempted from this. “The only positive was that having the MP after your name made absolutely no difference.” He laughs. “We were treated like sh** like everybody else!” His face soon clouds. “But here’s the thing, the great injustice. We were confronted by a six month waiting time in Norfolk to start treatment, and we were fairly desperate, and the truth is we could afford to get treatment for him. We paid privately. You do what you can for your child, don’t you? But it’s not acceptable. You cannot even begin to justify a country where people with money get help and people without money don’t.”

One thing I always admired about Norman as a Minister is that he never tried to dress things up and make it sound as if it was all ok. You had to respect his honesty:

“When you’re a minister the cultural pressure on you is to defend the status quo when you’re confronted with awful stories. You’re supposed to say ‘yes, we hear this, but things are getting better’. But I just decided to be completely upfront and say ‘yes, I completely share the horror’. I have empathy because we’d gone through it ourselves.”

And he had kind words for Nick Clegg and all he achieved, work that is now being undermined by the Tories:

An example is the £1.25 billion that the much-maligned Nick Clegg secured in the budget last year to be spent over this parliament as extra investment in children’s mental health. That’s £250m each year for five years. But in year one it was £143m [spent on children’s mental health]. A lot of it [the remaining money] is being spent propping up acute hospitals that are all in debt. And then there was the Mental Health taskforce which endorsed the need for maximum waiting time standards with mental illness, just as there are A&E standards and cancer standards. The report endorsed this, and the government accepted the report. But it’s not funded. So it won’t happen. It’s a mirage.

Share this interview with everyone you know. We need to build our shared understanding of the reality of mental ill health and the appalling way we treat those who suffer. It’s time to stand with all those people and families who struggle up against brick wall after brick wall.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings