Charles Walker recounts his personal experiences of living with obsessive compulsive disorder. He calls for better access to independent advocacy for people facing incarceration or community treatment orders and also for a review of the arbitary way mental health issues are currently dealt with on CRB checks.
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): It is absolutely fantastic to follow the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I was a researcher here in the early 1990s and a few Members present were here at that time. They will remember the debates about homosexuality. There were some discriminations, as there still are, in relation to homosexuality, and people were beginning to feel very uncomfortable about that. Many colleagues came to this place to take part in those debates, and they would say, “These discriminations against homosexuals are disgraceful, but I am not gay myself.” They did not want to be perceived as gay because they had an interest in those matters.
I am delighted to say that I have been a practising fruitcake for 31 years. It was 31 years ago at St John’s Wood tube station—I remember it vividly—that I was visited by obsessive compulsive disorder. Over the past 31 years, it has played a fairly significant part in my life. On occasions it is manageable and on occasions it becomes quite difficult. It takes one to some quite dark places. I operate to the rule of four, so I have to do everything in evens. I have to wash my hands four times and I have to go in and out of a room four times. My wife and children often say I resemble an extra from “Riverdance” as I bounce in and out of a room, switching lights off four times. Woe betide me if I switch off a light five times because then I have to do it another three times. Counting becomes very important.
I leave crisp and biscuit packets around the house because if I go near a bin, my word, I have to wash my hands on numerous occasions. There has to be an upside to a mental health problem. I thought that the upside would be that I would not get colds, because apparently if you wash your hands a lot, you don’t get colds, but I wash my hands hundreds of times a day and I get extremely cheesed off when I end up with a heavy cold.
OCD is like internal Tourette’s: sometimes it is benign and often it can be malevolent. It is like someone inside one’s head just banging away. One is constantly striking deals with oneself. Sometimes these are quite ridiculous and on some occasions they can be rather depressing and serious. I have been pretty healthy for five years but just when you let your guard down this aggressive friend comes and smacks you right in the face. I was on holiday recently and I took a beautiful photograph of my son carrying a fishing rod—hon. Members may know that I love fishing. There was my beautiful son carrying a fishing rod, I was glowing with pride and then the voice started, “If you don’t get rid of that photograph, your child will die.” You fight those voices for a couple or three hours and you know that you really should not give into them because they should not be there and it ain’t going to happen, but in the end, you are ain’t going to risk your child, so one gives into the voices and then feels pretty miserable about life.
But hey, there are amusing times as well. I do not feel particularly sorry for myself, because my skirmish with mental health is minor. There are people who live with appalling mental health problems day in, day out, which is why I when I became an MP, I regarded it as a wonderful opportunity to try to help them. I hope that I have an insight into some of their pain and agony and the battles that they go through on a daily basis. Many people are frightened and feel excluded.
My first year and a half in Parliament was absolutely appalling. It was very, very difficult. My constituents thought that I was a jolly fellow—that is how I came across—but I remember sitting in my office going through my post. A book arrived with a letter saying, “Managing your Tourette’s”. I thought, “Oh my word, someone has spotted me on television. I’m done for. They’ve sent me a book and I’ll be outed in the newspapers: ‘Walker’s a loony’”. My constituents will turn their backs on me, my association will throw its hands in the air, and my children will be chased through the playground.” I sat in cold terror for 10 minutes, wondering how I would navigate my way through this. I then picked up the letter and realised that it was a circular that it had gone to all 650 MPs, so I took great comfort from the fact that probably 50 others were having the same emotions as me.
We can talk about medical solutions to mental health problems, and of course medicine has a part to play. In reality, however, society has the biggest part to play. This is society’s problem, and we need to step back from our own prejudices, park them and embrace people with mental health problems. You only get one chance at life. You get about 80 years-ish. If you have severe mental health problems, you get about 65. Can you imagine going through your whole life feeling miserable, excluded, discriminated against, with little hope? I cannot. I have a wonderful vocation, I have a loving family, and I have a comfortable lifestyle, so I know, even when things are bad, they will get better, but a lot of people are not in that position, and we need to reach out to them.
I am really excited about the speech by the hon. Member for North Durham—I am very excited about that—and I am excited about the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan) secured this debate. We are making progress and moving in the right direction. We will hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) in a few moments—or hours—about his private Member’s Bill. Many colleagues in the House are taking part in the debate. I think that some colleagues would like to be here but, again, if they are here discussing mental health, some people might feel that they have a problem. Look, it is a not a problem, it really is not: let’s get over it guys, and move on.
Media reporting has improved and we do not often see headlines such as “Frank Luno”, which was totally indefensible. The media are beginning to get on board, because there are many people in the media who suffer from mental health problems. As the hon. Member for North Durham alluded to at the beginning of his speech, who are these people out there? They are doctors, nurses, teachers and soldiers; they are all around us. Why would the hon. Gentleman’s constituents think any differently of him now than they did 20 minutes ago? In fact, they will respect him a great deal more. Why would my constituents think any differently of me now than they did 10 minutes ago? Those who disliked me will continue to dislike me; those who like me will continue to like me; and those who were slightly agonistic could go either way.
Here we are, having a great, great debate. The all-party group on mental health is going from strength to strength and, for the first time, I am feeling really positive and very happy. I am not going to speak for much longer, but I want to say two things. We need to sort out independent mental health advocacy for people who face incarceration or are on community treatment orders. Access to representation is patchy across the country, and we need to sort that out, because we cannot lock up people who do not receive proper advocacy or constrain their liberties without proper advocacy.
We also need to address Criminal Records Bureau checks under the heading “Any other relevant information” that are entirely at the discretion of the chief constable. I am aware of a number of people who have had mental health problems and have been detained for a short while. The police became involved, because they took those individuals into detention or to hospital. They go for a job perhaps as a counsellor or working in the charitable sector. They have a clean record but under “Any other relevant information” the chief constable can say, “We are aware that this person was detained for a mental health problem at this institution. We are not aware that they are a threat to adults or children”. That is that. That is the end of the matter, because we recognise that there is stigma and discrimination. I am afraid that in our ultra risk-averse world, that is a career death sentence for those people. We need to sort that out.
I join the hon. Member for North Durham in saying that I am not frightened any more. Like him, I am pretty middle-aged, and I do not care what people think of me any more. When people come up to me and say, “Mr Walker, we think you an absolute rotter and so-and-so”, with OCD, I would probably have said a lot worse to myself 20 minutes earlier. It is not such a big deal. I am not frightened any more. It is a really good place to be, and we need to ensure that many hundreds of thousands can be in that place as well. Not being frightened is a really good thing. Hon. Gentlemen, hon. Ladies and friends: rock and roll, as they say. Thank you.