In praise of Nadia Whittome; Against Guido Fawkes

Nadia Whittome is Labour MP for Nottingham East. She was elected at the age of 23 and became the Baby of the House, the youngest member of parliament. Yesterday, Ms Whittome announced that she was taking time off – with the backing of her party leadership and on the instructions of her doctor – because she has been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Her statement, which she put up on Twitter, is below:

Having opened up about her mental health struggles, the Guido Fawkes blog decided it would be helpful to post the following:

Guido has no insight into what ails the youngest MP in parliament, Nadia Whittome, such that she needs to take a break from parliament due to PTSD. Parliament may be daunting though nothing akin to the trenches of the First World War. The shells lobbed on social media may ruin your day, they don’t kill. The human mind however can be fragile and politics is a contact sport, which social media makes feel like a 24/7 activity. Taking a break may help one gain more perspective. Having more years of life experience outside the political crucible might just give aspiring politicians more much-needed perspective.

The rest of the post does not make it very much better. In effect, they argue that Ms Whittome is suffering from PTSD because she just doesn’t have enough life experience. Maybe if she previously had a proper job, the delicate flower would cope better with the rough and tumble of British political life. Her sensitive disposition has obviously been affected by the goings on in parliament and the rude things people sometimes say about folk in public life. Those things, the blog avers, mean that she has concocted a diagnosis of PTSD when a little bit of life experience in another job, a proper job, would probably have toughened her up enough to cope.

Only, of course, doctors don’t tend to hand out diagnoses of PTSD to people because they don’t like being called rude names. Indeed, I know people who have suffered the kind of life circumstances that even Guido might consider somewhat traumatic who, despite their evident medical issues as a result, have struggled to get PTSD diagnoses. Some of them may well rightly not have been granted one, despite the evident issues they may face, while others may warrant a PTSD diagnosis and are being stymied in getting it. I am not a doctor and not best placed to say. What it does tell us, however, is that doctors don’t just hand these things out on a whim to those who are a bit delicate.

The ignorance on display is really quite something. Indeed, Guido admits he ‘has no insight into what ails the youngest MP in parliament‘ before going on to insist that the cause of her problem is a lack of life experience and an inability to cope with the ordinary rigours of life. As someone who is not a doctor, and has presumably not medically examined Ms Whittome and may not even know her personally in any meaningful way, it is quite breath-taking for someone to overrule the diagnosis of a doctor quite so confidently from such a position. Who knows, except Ms Whittome and whomever she has chosen to tell, what trauma she has suffered? And, frankly, aside from being none of our business, it really doesn’t matter. A doctor (not Ms Whittome herself) has diagnosed PTSD and so the rest of us – including those with the medical knowledge to say one way or the other but who have not personally examined the patient – must take their diagnosis at face value. We just aren’t in any position to contest it.

But there is a deeper ignorance on display. Mental health issues – so it would seem from the Guido Fawkes blog post – are merely the preserve of those who cannot cope with life. It is a label on which to stick our own failings. If only we had toughened up a bit, we wouldn’t need our antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. These are, apparently, only for the weak whose weakness is, in fact, their own fault. They have thrust themselves into situations without experience, they have not toughened themselves up, they have failed to start with the basics – viewing themselves more highly than they ought – and like Icarus, flew too close to the sun, where they plummet to their doom thanks to their melted, ill-prepared waxy wings.

But, of course, that narrative is complete cobblers. Plenty of people, who have served in all sorts of jobs, and lines of work, and tough environments have done just fine until, one day, their mental health took a nosedive. Whether it is depression or anxiety taking hold, or PTSD stemming from specific traumatic events, or psychoses that apparently spring from nowhere, there are countless examples of people doing very well – tough people, successful people with a track record of good work and long experience – suddenly finding themselves ill with these things. It might suit the narrative to point to the young Labour MP who became ill, it does nothing to explain away the Alistair Campbell’s with their long experience and tough persona who developed such illnesses later on. Perhaps Guido thinks Winston Churchill, too, was just a bit of a wimp and all his chat of black dogs would have gone away if he’s just had a longer career in something or other?

It really shouldn’t matter what you think of Nadia Whittome or her politics. It is admirable that she has publicly stated the reason for her sick leave. The evidence that it is a braver than many people think – aside from such things always being a struggle when you suffer from mental health issues anyway – is writ large before us. It is this sort of reaction from the Guido Fawkes blog that stops people admitting to the most serious of illnesses. And whilst it is a line that is overly used these days, to the point that it has lost its power, the truth is such comments will lead to deaths. It will stop people accessing the help they need for fear of being called wet, being thought badly of, being called weak and pathetic. It will cause them to magnify those same thoughts they already had about themselves, will stop them seeking help because they have been told it isn’t medical (when it is), it is just weakness. And as they seek to soldier on, like attempting to fight cancer through sheer willpower alone and perhaps eating a few more greens – only weak, pathetic people get chemo after all – it will lead to deaths. The comments were unwise, ignorant, stupid and – without putting too fine a point on it – dangerous.

Nadia Whittome should be praised for her honesty. It should be welcomed that she is speaking about these things so that others might see that it is okay to ask for help and that medical issues are no sign of personal failing. The comments from Guido Fawkes actively undercut that aim, will almost certainly damage Ms Whittome’s recovery if she sees them and may well stop others seeking the help they sorely need.

As someone who suffers with depression, I haven’t really ever experienced the ‘stigma of mental health’. I have found most people to be supportive and caring. Whilst I have faced ignorance and insensitivity, only once would I say there was real stigma attached to it (and me). But I know others who have suffered and felt this far more than I have. It is for this reason that we wrote The Pastor with a Thorn in His Side. So that people can see they are not alone and that there is no need to feel ashamed of what is, fundamentally, a medical issue beyond our control. And I am thankful that there are voices in the public domain – such as Nadia Whittome – who are willing to be open about their own mental health struggles too so that others might find the help they need.