Thursday, 2 May 2013

The speech I couldn't finish

It's been seven weeks now since I broke down about a third of the way through my speech in the Scottish Liberal Democrat conference mental health debate. It was a debate characterised by quite astounding bravery from almost all of those who got up to speak. Each brave speaker independently chose to disregard the stigma surrounding the issue and relate their own experiences of mental ill health in the hope that those present could learn from those experiences and help to bring change. I am especially grateful to Christine Jardine for abandoning her prepared speech in order to deliver the rest of my own. It was an extremely kind and compassionate gesture that reflected the remarkably supportive and familial atmosphere in the hall.

I have been holding the emotions behind this speech inside me for about 15 years now, so it's perhaps unsurprising that I couldn't get to the end. Even siphoning off that emotion to drive my drug policy work for the last 5 years clearly wasn't sufficient to prepare me for confronting the one thing more than any other that drives me in my political activity.

I hope in publishing my speech in blog form it can reach a wider audience, and maybe cause some people to think about how we can make things better.

"Good afternoon conference. This is very much the second draft of my speech. The first one was basically me taking the opportunity to confront my brother's mental illness and how I feel about it. There was no way I could have delivered that speech. A good friend described it as very touching and very raw, so if you're into that kind of thing I'll probably put it up as a blog early next week*.

I have a brother with schizophrenia. It has been a hugely traumatic thing for my family to deal with over the last 17 years, and I sadly don't see anything in this motion that might have spared us that trauma. This is a fairly solid, well-meaning mental health motion and I'm sorry I couldn't have engaged earlier in an attempt to improve it.

But I'm here now, so I have to take this opportunity to encourage the party to additionally focus its efforts on the key issues of prevention and early intervention.

Schizophrenia is a condition that can render young people a traumatising burden for the rest of their lives. It usually first appears in someone's late teens or early twenties, and it affects approximately 1% of the population. Why, why are we not preparing school children for the distinct possibility themselves, a family member, or friend, might start to lose their grip on rationality and reality. Why are we leaving families open to this devastating impact, that sets off a chain reaction of pain, anguish and mental ill health that ricochets wildly through our society.

I've said this to a UK government health minister's face and I'll say it again to you today. I would have given all my As for the knowledge to identify the warning signs of my brother's impending deterioration. The knowledge that could allow me to do the right thing in good time to allow him to cling on to reality and eventually return to a chance at happiness and fulfilment. Why do we spend hours teaching the fictional breakdown of Hamlet or the poems of Philip Larkin, when we could be teaching our children how to safeguard their real life mental health and how to look out for - and respond appropriately to - the deterioration of their friends and family.

My brothers chances of happiness and fulfilment are all but gone now. This motion is ok, but I humbly ask for your help in preparing the motion or motions necessary for future conferences, that will facilitate genuine early and effective intervention in mental health conditions.

There are a massive number of families like mine who are suffering in silence due to schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, alcoholism, drug abuse or myriad other mental health problems. It is a great pity that we struggle to gather the emotional strength or courage to stamp our feet and shout from the rooftops. But we are out there and we are legion. But because we don't speak up, we are not spoken to. Politicians instead concentrate their messages on jobs and growth. But what is a job without a happy home life. I'd dearly love this party to plant it's flag firmly on this ground. We should be the party that aspires for a society in which it is easier to find happiness, and easier to avoid sadness and trauma.

Voting for this motion is a good start, but we can do so much more."

Having just read this again for the first time in a long while, I'm surprised at how short it is. It doesn't have to be long though. It's a simple request for changes that will be very easy to deliver politically. All it needs is for politicians to do some upper lip loosening exercises and to consider the enormous benefits that better mental health and a more emotionally resilient population could deliver for our society. 

*I'm happy to e-mail copies of the first draft of the speech to anyone who's interested. I'm not comfortable with it being distributed more widely though, so please don't pass it on.