Tuesday, 17 March 2015


Yesterday, The Sunday Mirror published an interview with Norman Lamb, which focused on the experiences of his son: both with mental illness and drugs. Whilst this had been published with the consent of Mr Lamb and his family, it is clear to me that he was bounced into it. 

Whilst he's never made a secret that one of the drivers of his campaigning on the subject - pushing it up the agenda of both government and Lib Dem policy - was family experience, he had never been so specific before. Indeed, when he mentioned his son's problems in a conference fringe event on Saturday night (ahead of publication of the article on Sunday) this was the first time he had mentioned done so in public.

The publication of the article inspired me to start a hashtag on Twitter, which was picked up by Lib Dem Voice and a number of others on Twitter. I'll let the Storify take it from there:

P.S. Following publication of the Storify, and promoting it on Twitter, I received notification of this Tweet, which was gratifying!

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Mental Health - What I would have said to #ldconf

This morning I had a Speakers' Card in for a debate on Mental Health, and measures Liberal Democrats want to see implemented in order to break the stigma and tackle the myriad problems mental illness causes.

It was a high quality debate, with lots of personal stories, so I wasn't too upset not to be called. Here, though, for posterity, is the final draft of what I would have said in the 3 minutes that would have been available. 


5 months ago, I could hardly contain my joy at the focus this party put on Mental Health at our last conference in Glasgow. Not only was it a key theme of the speech by our care minister, Norman Lamb, it was central to Nick's speech too. 

At last, Mental Illness was getting a spotlight shone on it by not just by campaigning organisations, or those with a particular responsibility, but by the Deputy Prime Minister. Not in a specialist setting, but on the national stage in one of the set-piece events of the year.

Mental Health matters. It matters to me as 20 years ago, I suffered from depression. It matters to me because even now I occasionally get the warning signs of a recurrence. The random thoughts telling me that people are talking about me, people don't like me, that I'm a failure. The pointless actions that reinforce - either in truth or in imagining - these paranoid thoughts. 

It matters to me as I've known friends and colleagues suffer, including some who have committed suicide - and seen their families give out some other reason for their illness, or deaths.

And this is why it matters to all of us - that stigma that persists even though mental illness affects 1 in 4 of us at some points in our life. Whether consciously or not, we all know people affected.

And we'll only break the stigma if we keep talking about it. If people at this conference, the other party conferences, in the Commons, in the Lords talk about. And outside of politics: in the media, at work, with friends: we must talk about. Clearly, concisely, sensitively and without euphemism.

Breaking the stigma matters to us all if we really are to create a Fairer Society with Opportunity for Everyone.

So, that is why I welcome this party's focus on these issues. I support this motion, but I really wanted to talk about lines 63 & 64.

I have a friend who has schizophrenia. His illness is kept under control with medication - but the nature of the condition means that a regular 9 to 5 - or other full time - job wouldn't be feasible. Unfortunately, that is not the way the benefit system is set up. A lack of understanding in the system either forces people back to work, or into sanctions, without exploring or providing any additional support that may be required.

Our commitment to Mental Health needs to permeate and inform all policy areas, in the same way as consideration is given to physical ailments.

And we need to learn from best practice - companies like that of another friend who supported him through a personal breakdown, and enabled his return to work on reduced hours in a slightly less senior role: a company which then sought his advice when composing a company policy for the mental welfare of their staff.

Conference, we've come a long way but we need to keep on banging on about mental illness: only by exposing its frequency, explaining its effects, supporting those suffering and increasing visibility will smash the stigma and create a more Liberal society.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

There but for the grace of God...

Last night I took part in a sponsored sleep-out for a local homelessness charity, Crisis Centre Ministries, organised under the auspices of the Bristol Churches Action Network. 

Here's how it all went down.


Unlike many who find themselves in position of sleeping out for real, those taking part - and there was 100-200 of us - were able to prepare in advance. In this I was grateful for the help of friends who had done the sleep-out in the past and knew what to expect.

Participants came equipped with cardboard, blankets and survival bags - not to mention lots of layers of clothes, eyemasks and earplugs. Personally, I had a pair of thermal socks on and a paid of chunky walking socks, tracksuit bottoms, jeans, three layers of tops, a thick jacket, scarf, hat, and two hoods: and even then, I still felt cold at points.

Here I am, ready to head out:

"You didn't say you had to dress the part too..." my Housemate said.

We had opted for airbeds and sleeping bags as well tarpaulins to help protect against the forecast rain. Here is my berth:

Great care was taken with making my bed...

Support not Simulation

Having arrived, checked in, chosen a pitch and set up, it was time for a briefing from the organisers. Aside from health and safety info, this focused on how what we were doing could only provide a window into what the real experience was like. The event was about raising awareness, fundraising and demonstrating support more than recreating what those sleeping rough really go through, night after night.

As I queued for soup I had a conversation with other participants about how much we take the warmth, safety and privacy of our own beds for company. These are things not shared by those sleeping rough, or even (always) by those in hostels or shelters. Whilst we take these things for granted, though, we don't know what could happen to change it. No-one plans to become homeless: there but for the grace of God...

After the soup, it was time to bed down - and to work out what to do with my muddy boots - wear them, take them off (but risk them getting wet in the forecast rain) or something else? In the end I opted to stick them in the carrier bag I had and keep them with me inside the sleeping bag, along with the waterproofs I had also brought in case of need. Other than that, getting ready for bed was much less of an effort than normal.

The view from my bed

After spending a while browsing on the interwebs on my phone and messaging with friends whilst listening to the Dum Tee Dum Archers podcast, I turned off the tech and settled down to try and get to sleep.

I had eschewed earplugs and used a scarf wrapped round my face to substitute for an eyemask. After a brief while I managed to get to sleep.

Alas, I woke up after about an hour, and lay awake listening to an assortment of music for the next couple of hours. Gradually it became clear I couldn't put off going to the toilet - and so at about four I got up and, as quietly as I could, faffed around with putting my boots back on and heading to the toilet. It seemed like most folks were faring better than me in the sleeping stakes.

Back in bed, it was more lying awake for me - although I think I did manage to dose fitfully until about quarter to six when folks started to rise, ready to pack away. A morning cuppa was provided, as were bacon butties for those who felt up to them.

Wakey wakey, rise and shine...

It could be you... (and not in a good way)

Becoming homeless happens to people from all walks of life. Relationship breakdowns, family quarrels, drug and/or alcohol problems and mental health issues are all amongst the triggers than can lead to a life on the streets.

Lying on the relative luxury of an airbed on what turned out to me a relatively mild and (faint drizzle aside) dry night, it wasn't hard to imagine what it would be like for real. How much colder and wetter it could be. How much more uncomfortable lying on the ground would be. How much less you could be wearing if sleeping rough hadn't been on your to-do list. 

Any tech you had would soon become useless (other than for the pawn value) and podcasts and music would give way to the roar of traffic, the scream of sirens and the banter of drunken revellers.

Your first few nights may be well be sleepless, but sooner or later your body would force sleep on you. But your body and spirit would suffer, and dignity would ebb away. How long, I thought, before the need to get up to the toilet would be subordinate to the desire to retain whatever warmth you had managed to achieve. As my dad said when I spoke with him earlier, it would soon enough wear the health out of you.

I know I'm blasé about not having a doctor - but I also know I could get healthcare if I felt I needed it. Those who are homeless are not so lucky but are often in far more desperate need of medical attention.

Not a PPB 

I've been very careful not to promote my fundraising efforts through any of my political outlets, mainly because this isn't about self-promotion, nor is it about making some sort of party political point.

There are those who would seek to make political statements about homelessness and related issues. For me it's too easy to say it's all the fault of this party or that one and all too glib to say there will always be homeless people.

As with most things the reality is more complicated than that, and it is beholden on everyone in public life - or who would like to be in public life - to be aware of the effect their actions have, and to work with the experts in the field in raising awareness, making provisions for those affected and working on preventative strategies.