It’s now a fortnight since I and my family moved back to London after nearly 23 years living in God’s Own Country. I’d like to dedicate this blog to a celebration of a very special part of the country and, just as importantly, a very special set of folk.
Size is a defining feature of Yorkshire within which there is an amazing breadth and contrast of landscapes. Where we lived in Leeds drew us naturally to the Yorkshire Dales, a particularly distinctive limestone scenery, so much more impressive in real life than it ever was in the pages of geography textbooks. The nearest reaches of the Dales were very much on our doorstep in North Leeds but the furthest reaches in Swaledale a couple of hours drive away. If you ever could grow tired of the Dales then there was the different but equally distinctive character of the North Yorkshire Moors to explore. Beyond that the Yorkshire Wolds, which I only really managed to get to in our last year in Yorkshire, or the bleak but impressive Yorkshire coast. If you could ever have enough of upland scenery then there are many hours of lovely cycling to be had journeying through the villages of the Plain of York or the flatlands leading out to East Yorkshire.
In part because of its size, in part because it contains many places, like the Dales, which aren’t on the route from A to B, Yorkshire can hold 5 million people yet also have in relatively close proximity to its urban centres many places of genuine solitude and grandeur where, as Shelley said “We taste the pleasure of believing all we see is boundless, as we wish our souls to be.”
Yorkshire’s probably not a place, in my opinion, to go for the weather. It’s not particularly wet like the west but it does appear to get less sun and is definitely colder. Spring can be slow coming and in the depth of winter the days are dark and gloomy. Yet when the sun shines it does not take much to make Yorkshire places look special. I am especially fond of May in Yorkshire and the look of the Dales bathed in a verdant green, crisscrossed with the silver lines of the dry stone walls.
So what of Yorkshire folk? When we first moved to Leeds, my wife’s great uncle, himself from Yorkshire, advised us “Tha can always tell a Yorkshireman but tha canna tell him much”. There is a hint of truth to this statement. It is certainly the case, as anyone who listens regularly to Test Match Special will know, that Yorkshire people are not slow to offer an opinion. When we first moved north we noted the contrast between London where if you asked for directions in the street you could easily be ignored (or more likely find someone who was just as much a stranger as you were) whereas in Yorkshire if you even so much as looked lost someone would volunteer directions. When I was training for a marathon a couple of years ago I would do a run during the week in London and one at the weekend in Leeds. In Leeds every other runner you passed would say hello and, as far as available breath permitted, make some encouraging comment. In London you were lucky if you could make eye contact.
So what of Yorkshire’s relationship with the rest of England and Britain? In many ways it is big enough to argue the case for a significant amount of devolution. After all, as was proudly pointed out at the time, Yorkshire won more gold medals at the last Olympics than Germany. It has a very clear regional identity and sees itself as very different from London and the South. It has a strong Viking heritage, reflected in many place names and in that doughty sense of independence of character which I have already alluded to. It has a distinctive cultural tradition: brass bands, choral societies, cricket, rugby league but also more contemporary traditions in music. So it’s surprised me in a way that there has been less momentum towards devolution in Yorkshire. Perhaps that reflects the absence, in contrast to the other side of the Pennines, of a dominant metropolitan area such as Manchester. It will be interesting to see whether as the momentum towards regional devolution increases whether Leeds, Bradford and Sheffield can work together to create a viable focus for regional government in Yorkshire.
As has been the case with my family for generations, economic forces have again led us to upsticks and leave the place where, very happily, we brought up our children. There will be always be a place in my heart for the White Rose and it won’t be too long before, once again, I am found in my favourite haunts in God’s Own Country.
Next Monday is a significant date in terms of British history. It marks the 800th anniversary of the agreement, in a meadow besides the Thames, at Runnymede between Staines and Windsor, of the Charter of Liberties (later to be known as the Magna Carta or Great Charter) . While some of its notoriety relates to later interpretation, in particular in the 17th century, it is nonetheless synonymous with the tradition of liberty, due process and representative Government in this country and, by transference, more widely in the English speaking world.
Magna Carta was the culmination of a long running fight between King John, and it is fair to say his predecessors, and the English aristocracy about the limits of royal power and, in particular, how royal power impacted on the rights, privileges and livelihoods of the aristocracy.
John is a notorious figure in British history. Unlike his later Plantagenet successor Richard III, he has not had the redeeming experience of having been dug up in a 21st century car park. His reputation lies exactly where the medieval chroniclers on whose testimony we are most dependent for information about his reign left it – in tatters. They portrayed him as a tyrant who squandered his inheritance, murdered his enemies, raped their wives, lost his treasure in the Wash and died a horrible death after eating a surfeit of lampreys.
As ever the truth is probably a bit more complex. The records of his Government which survive show evidence of an able administrator concerned with the extension of royal justice, undoubtedly paranoid, suffering with the unfair comparison with his courageous but equally flawed brother, Richard the Lionheart and dealt a bad hand in the nature of issues and opponents he had to deal with. In the end John’s difficulties, like those of many rulers, came down to money and the abuses he committed against aristocratic privilege reflect to a great extent the challenges he faced in raising sufficient resources to protect his overseas possessions in France.
Nonetheless at the end of his reign he lost control of his kingdom and was forced by aristocrat rebels to concede a Charter of Liberties which dealt with their grievances about the arbitrary use of royal power. For a variety of reasons it has had life which has extended well beyond the circumstances in which it was granted and has a special place in our history.
It is important to note that this was a Charter of Liberties not a Charter of Liberty. Unlike later statements such as the US Declaration of Independence, there is no overarching political theory of freedom or equality underpinning Magna Carta. It reflects no more than the attempts of a vested interest to reassert its privileges yet somehow it is contributed something to the DNA of British life and Government which has had a longer term effect.
There are a number of reasons why it is important that we use this anniversary to reflect on the state of liberty in our country.
First it reminds us of the central importance of safeguards which protect human rights, grant equality in front of the law and provide restrictions on the use of arbitrary power. Britain has in many ways one of the best traditions in respect of these principles but we have relied as much on custom and practice as formal measures to provide those safeguards. Magna Carta has great symbolic value as the most famous statement of our liberties which successive rulers of this country have wished to align themselves to in intent, if not in practice.
There is an importance in having a statement of freedoms which transcends any individual Government. In 1945, at the end of the bloodiest and most brutal conflict in human history, another land mark declaration of human rights was put together in the form of the European Convention of Human Rights. The war and the horrors of the Nazi regime made it self-evident that basic human rights, so grossly abused in the previous 12 years should be given international recognition and protection.
A major contribution was made to its drafting by British politicians and British jurists, their thinking grounded in the tradition going back to Magna Carta. For me it would be a retrograde step to repeal the Human Rights Act and especially to sever our link to the European Court of Human Rights There is something reassuring about a commitment to guarantee rights which goes beyond the writ of any national Government. International rulings can at times be awkward for national Governments but in general they are a welcome protection for ordinary people against arbitrary authority.
Second it reminds us of the importance of fair laws and the fair application of laws. Whatever a Government chooses to do the basis for its actions must be transparent and open to challenge. The arbitrary and inconsistent exercise of power is both harmful to individual citizens but also in due course undermines trust in Government itself. As I have commented in earlier blogs, there has been too much of tendency in recent years for Governments (of both political complexions) to rush to legislation, often in response to media pressure. Poorly though out laws pushed through Parliament eventually the erode the trust on which the authority of Government is based. As King John discovered fear can only get you so far in securing the support and compliance of those you govern.
The final point is that justice must not be or be perceived to be “for sale”. One of the issues which prompted the barons to rebel against King John was his practice of selling justice and we must always be concerned at the perception that wealth can in some ways buy an advantage in front of the law. Today it feels, increasingly, that the quality of justice which is open to the poor is of a different character to that which is open to the rich. This is in part as result of cuts to legal aid, in part because of the ability of the rich to buy a level of legal expertise not affordable by others, in part because of the increasing ability of rich individuals and corporations to use their wealth to buy levels of access to lawmakers not open to the more disadvantaged in society.
So Monday June 15th and the anniversary of Magna Carta should be treated as more than just a dry historical occasion. This issues which led to the meeting at Runnymede are just as important today and we should use this moment as a genuine opportunity to celebrate the tradition of this liberty in this country and to think afresh about the challenges facing it and the steps we need to take to guarantee it for the future.
I have just finished James Rebanks’ The Shepherd’s Life, perhaps the best book I’ve read this year and a beautiful account of the traditional life and perspective of a Lake District fell farmer. At the centre of the story is a very deep seated attachment to the mountain area where James’ forebears have farmed for six centuries and this has inspired me to write my next blog about the issue of “place.”
As a shepherd James uses a lovely word “hefted” to describe the genetic attachment which a flock of fell sheep have to the particular part of the mountainside where they have grazed for generations of summers. Place too has an enormous role to play in the human psyche, although increasingly less so since the start of the Industrial Revolution when the forces of capitalism began to uproot us from the patterns of settlement and work which had held or hefted the majority of us in one place for centuries.
My sense of place is very much part of my Welsh inheritance. Place is important in Welsh culture, unsurprising in a country which is made up of lots of small communities, often quite cut off from each other, even in modern times, by geography and the lack of fast communication links. Given the limited number of Welsh surnames it’s quite common to identify someone by a reference to the farm, street or hamlet where they live. The most famous of Welsh hymn writers is always referred to as William Williams Pantycelyn or sometimes just Pantycelyn as if the place as much as the man shaped the beautiful hymns he wrote. Many Welsh poems relate to places or features in the landscape.
My own family has wandered since the start of the Industrial Revolution and I have personally shifted home, several times in my life, often in search of employment. However I retain that strong sense of place. Where I live matters, the landscape whether urban or rural, the people, the sense or otherwise of community, the accent, the peculiarities of custom and practice which distinguish one place from another all make profound difference to my sense of wellbeing. My family ruthlessly take the mickey out of me for always wanting to stay behind at the end of film to see where it was filmed. The setting of a story can matter as much the story itself.
A sense of place matters too in politics and social policy. Landscapes and communities are fragile things and what they offer is so much more than bricks and mortar or a simple collection of amenities. The planners of the 1960s and 1970s have much to answer for the soulless and materialistic approach they brought to urban development which has scarred so many of our cities. Nowhere was this truer than in Birmingham, the city I was born and brought up in and whose concrete jungle I was so keen as a 20 year old to leave. This was a classic example of how government provided for the physical needs of city dwellers while ignoring their needs for community and wellbeing. While I believe planning and architecture has improved, and has lost some of the arrogant view that it knows best, the mistakes made in the developments of the post war period have cast a long shadow. How much have ugly dead end estates, with no sense of community and nothing for people to do been the breeding grounds of mental health problems, social issues, drug and alcohol misuse and crime?
Good places also need a viable economic focus. One of the themes of the Shepherd’s Life is the need to appreciate the Lakeland fells, not just as the playground of the urban masses, but also as an economic landscape within which a traditional and valued form of life, that of the hill farmer, can still continue. The balance of that economy is very fragile and vulnerable to external shocks. The joy of the hill farmer is not just admiring the aesthetic beauty of the mountains but in appreciating the deep enduring and sustainable relationship which man has built with this landscape. Such places all over the world are disappearing as wider economic forces undermine the basis on which they are able to survive. Their potential loss is an immense tragedy for humankind as we lose more and more of the diversity which is at the heart of what makes our world and our species so special.
We need wealth creation, but capitalism, left unchecked is an immensely destructive force. It raises places up like the Rhondda Valley, where my grandparents lived and where my father grew up. However when it’s finished it can leave them abandoned in a dark post-industrial no man’s land. Places of character and community can be left as islands of hopelessness where the only way up is out.
Preserving, creating or recreating good places is no easy task. It is not a thing for Governments alone although they can do much to enable it. It does need experts and it does those who can create and channel wealth in a benign manner. It more than anything needs people who care, who are prepared to put more into a community than they take out, who value the place they live in and are prepared to fight to make it a better place.
I have had a lifelong interest in Roman Britain. When I was 6, having failed to visit the Roman site at Chester on the way back from a family holiday in North Wales, I decided, one Sunday morning, to take the law into my own hands. Being the “intelligent clot” I am I knew that the A41 which went past the bottom of our road went all the way to Chester. So I set off with a carrier bag with a drawing pad and a packet of custard cream biscuits. I had walked two miles into Birmingham before my father found me.
46 years later I still find anything to do with the Romans in Britain fascinating and as my family know to their cost, it will take very little to divert me from wherever we happen to be going to visit some little piece of Romanitas, however far off the beaten track it may be. Recently it’s been a great pleasure to discover someone else’s fascination with the subject while reading Charlotte Higgins Under Another Sky which describes her journey round some of the principal (and less principal) sites of Roman Britain together with some of the stories which surround those places. It’s a great read and I thoroughly recommend it.
While there are one or two earlier references in other writers to Britain, the arrival of Julius Caesar in 55BC marks our country’s transition from prehistory to history, the first emergence of named individuals with some idea of what they did and said. I always take a pleasure that it wasn’t any old Roman who first tried to conquer Britain. He came, he saw and, of course, he didn’t quite conquer. After two expeditions, of mixed success, he was forced to give up his ambitions and it wasn’t until 43AD and the Emperor Claudius that the Romans finally added Britain to the Empire. They remained here for another 367 years until the Emperor Honorius was forced to call the legions home in 410AD and leave the British to their own devices.
As Charlotte Higgins brings out very well Under Another Sky an interest in Roman Britain is both an interest in the Romans and in Britain itself. While militarily and economically one of the most challenging parts of the Empire the Romans nonetheless successfully brought the trappings of their civilisation to Britain. Cities, roads, bathhouses, literacy are amongst the list of what the Romans did for us and while, with the exception of Hadrian’s Wall, the physical remains of Roman Britain are not as grand as those to found in other parts of the Empire the lasting legacy of the Romans is still with us. It is probably the Romans who first defined Britain as a distinct geographical and cultural entity and who initiated many of the reference points which are still very important references for our cultural identity.
Our capital London is a Roman foundation, for a while one of the most significant cities of the Empire as it became the centre of the grain supply for the Roman army in Germany. The essence of London as the administrative and economic centre of the country is a Roman creation and many of the main roads leading out of the capital still follow the lines of their Roman predecessors. Furthermore our relationship with Europe is still underpinned to an extent by the shadow of having been part of the Roman Empire. Finally, while no one should idealise the motives and conduct of Roman imperialists they were the first to bring an idea of “civilisation” to this country.
While the Romans would have definitely recognised the economic fault line between the North West and South East halves of the country Roman Britain is not just about the South East. The military investment in maintaining the northern frontier of the Empire at Hadrian’s Wall and, at times beyond, ensured that Roman life and Roman civilisation was well established in northern England as well. York, a crucial staging point on the Great North Road, was an important Roman city where two Emperors died and where one, none less than Constantine the Great, was proclaimed. The discovery of the wonderful Vindolanda tablets (from one of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall) show Roman civilisation alive and well on the very edge of the Roman world. It is impossible not to be moved by the birthday party invitation sent from the wife of one of the senior officers of the unit based at Vindolanda to one of her friends.
It is this sense of distant, but yet at times quite intense, connection with the inhabitants of Roman Britain which make I spent a large part of my University summers working on archaeological excavations at two Roman cities: Wroxeter in Shropshire and Silchester, near Reading. In both cases the cities were abandoned at the end of the Roman period (although in the case of Wroxeter much later than was originally supposed) and they are again green fields. In both there is a lovely haunting sense of the shades of the ancient Romans who went about their business in these places, looking at the same sky and the same scenery. AE Houseman captures this perfectly in the line in his poem about Wroxeter
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double
I t blows so hard it will soon be gone.
Today the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
Like the Romans we will, at some point, all become dust but it does not mean that our time on this earth is without meaning. Roman Britain is a distant but significant period in our history. Despite all that has happened since, it has contributed to our identity and values and is worthy of our interest and reflection now.
The ambition of “parity of esteem” between physical and mental health was one of the significant contributions of the Liberal Democrats to health policy in the last Parliament. It has been a frustrating concept, at times, because of the gap between the aspiration which the phrase contains and the reality of services and budgets on the ground at a time of austerity. It did however, for me, capture a laudable and crucial aim to put mental health centre stage in our health and social care system and to address the appalling long term and structural inequalities faced people who experience mental health problems in accessing help. While champions such as Norman Lamb and Paul Burstow are no longer part of Government it is crucial that new Ministers and other senior leaders pick up this mantle, first, because people with mental health problems deserve it but secondly because it is a fundamental part of sustainable health and social care system in this country.
The NHS has always treated mental illness as a second class problem and an area of expenditure which is easier to cut than A&E or cancer when savings have to be made. Despite the political commitment there has been on the issue, there has been clear evidence of disinvestment from the sector, the most recent estimate from Community Care suggesting that this has been as much as £600m or 8% of total budget over the length of the last Parliament. NHS Providers’ recent report “Funding for Mental Health Services: Moving towards Parity of Esteem” indicates that this year has failed to reverse the tide despite the strongest injunction I have ever seen in national guidance to increase mental health spending in line with the overall increase in allocations received by CCG.
There are many reasons why it’s hard to do. Many CCGs, or their acute providers, are already facing significant deficits and pressure on key performance standards such as the 18 week wait or the 4 hour wait in A&E inevitably focus attention away from less visible gaps in services in areas such as mental health. From 2016 mental health will, for the first time, have its own waiting time targets for access for treatment for anxiety and depression and to early intervention services for people with a first episode psychosis. These are welcome developments and it must be a continued priority in the next 5 years to see an extension of the kind of guarantees of access to services for people with mental health problems as we take for granted for physical health problems. Progress will not be without cost and it is crucial that additional resources, such as those promised for children and young peoples’ mental health promised by the last Government, reach the front line. Simon Stevens leadership on the issue has been helpful and I very much hope that the Taskforce he has established, chaired by Paul Farmer, will add to the case.
But a priority around mental health goes much further than just traditional mental health services, important though they are. The proper consideration of mental health as a central component of the model of integrated care is also crucial if the kinds of benefits envisaged in the Five Year Forward Year are to be properly realised. Some progress has been made in work on both the Better Care Fund and New Models of Care to bring mental health to the table but that is a long way further to go.
There are three dimensions to this issue which between them have a massive impact on how our wider health and social care system operates. First there is the issue of co-morbidity where mental health issues such as depression, anxiety or dementia set alongside physical health problems, restricting recovering, reducing wellbeing and contributing to frailty and risk. Many such patients currently receive no help for their mental health problems despite an excess cost to the NHS of failing to treat these symptoms estimated by the Kings Fund and Centre for Mental Health of as much as £13 billion per year.
Secondly there is the issue of medically unexplained symptoms where psychological distress or other mental health problems can underlie the presentation of physical symptoms. Such issues might account for 1 in 3 patients seen by a GP and 1 in 4 patients in a hospital clinic. As services such as our primary care psychotherapy service working alongside GPs in Hackney show there are really benefits from providing psychological support for such patients, improving their outcomes and saving money in other parts of the system.
Finally there should be an important recognition of how psychological considerations impact more widely on individuals affected by illness and on care givers, both professionals and informal carers. Nowhere would this be truer than in end of life care, as anyone in the hospice movement would readily tell you. Better regard to such issues might well lead to better decisions about the utilisation of healthcare and more effective interventions when they are applied.
As I have argued in this blog there has never been a more important time to put mental health centre stage. It may have been the Liberal Democrats who coined the term “parity of esteem” but it is the duty of the new Government, NHS England and other senior leaders in the system to make sure, however difficult it is to find the funding, that there are concrete steps taken in the next 5 years to make it more of a reality.
As someone educated in the classical tradition, the name of A.E. Houseman has been familiar to me for years but until this Easter I had never read his poetry.
Houseman is an interesting figure. Born in 1859 in Bromsgrove he became one of the great classical scholars of his generation (and that was something in his generation) ending up as Professor of Latin, first at University College London and subsequently at Cambridge. However, it was nearly not to be. After winning a scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford and securing a first in the first set of exams there he completely bombed the second half of the course, leaving the University without a degree. There is no clear rationale for what happened to him but an unrequited passion for his roommate Moses Jackson, appears to have been one factor. After Oxford he secured a job at the Patent Office and had to work his way back into academia through dint of private scholarship of such a quality that in 1892 he was offered the chair at UCL.
Houseman did not make much of himself as poet and yet he has become one of the best loved and evocative English poets of the late 19th and 20th century. His first and most famous book of poems “A Shropshire Lad” had to be published, for the first time, at his own expense but have never been out of print since. He only published only one other book of poems in his own lifetime “Last Poems”, which came out in 1922. Further works were published, by his brother, after his death in 1936.
Despite his background as a classical scholar his poetry has a simple and very accessible quality. Much of it has a melancholy tone and there is a sense which “The Shropshire Lad” foreshadows the writing of the First World War poets. The theme of the soldier leaving for war only to find a grave in a foreign field is a frequent one in Houseman’s poems although, for him, this is part of a wider reflection on the transient nature of life rather than a commentary on a particular conflict.
Like other writers in this period Houseman is deeply interested in the English countryside, in his case that of Shropshire, which forms, in turn, both the setting and subject matter of his poems. I too have been fond of this county, sitting as it does on the route between Birmingham and Wales. Houseman sees the landscape as the holder of perennial truths, an unchanging backdrop to the more ephemeral deeds of the human characters who pass through it. There is a beautiful poem in the Shropshire Lad about the Roman city of Wroxeter. I spent three summers myself working on excavations at the site in the 1980s and was held in awe by the powerful presence of the Wrekin on one side and Wenlock Edge on the other which would have looked little different for the Roman inhabitants of the city. So Houseman describes a gale on Wenlock Edge and the feeling its creates as something shared by Roman and modern visitor alike:
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ‘twas the Roman, now ‘tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double
It blows so hard it will soon be gone.
Today the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
Another set of poems contrasts the comfort provided by the familiar people and countryside of Shropshire with the soulless metropolis of London. Houseman captures poignantly the deep sense of homesickness which many must have felt who have come from the country to the big cities of the world.
But here in London streets I ken
No such helpmates only men;
And these are not in plight to bear
If they would, another’s care.
He also writes some very moving poems about outsiders and those who, though fate more than anything else, have fallen outside society’s rules. There is a powerful poems identifying with a young man condemned to be hung in Shrewsbury Gaol.
A better lad, if things went right,
Than most that sleep outside.
Another poem reflects on those who have taken their own lives:
Dead clay that did me kindness
I can do none to you
But only wear for breastknot
The flower of sinners’ rue.
A final, rather enigmatic poem perhaps alluding to his own sexuality, describes the difficulty of living to other laws than those which society has ordained to be right.
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
A final theme which Houseman describes with great insight is the contrast between the naïve optimism of youth and the more worldly wise but ultimately sadder thoughts of the older man. Houseman is deeply absorbed by the idea of death and the ultimate futility of human labour. He retains however a fondness for the young person’s hope and for the fact that an endearing even if ultimately frustrated sense of hopefulness survives in each generation. So in his poem “The first of May” published as part of his “Last Poems” Houseman describes how it is now a different generation which, just like his, make their way to Ludlow Fair on the 1st of May.
Our thoughts, a long while after,
They think, our words they say
Theirs now the laughter
The fair, the first of May.
Ay yonder lads are yet
The fools that we were then;
For oh, the sons we get
Are still the sons of men.
Like many involved in the battle to change attitudes towards mental illness, my heart sank on Friday morning when, walking through Clapham Junction Station, I caught sight of the day’s newspaper headlines. In language at the best sensationalist and in many cases judgemental and stigmatising they made the claim that the Tuesday’s tragic crash of the German Wings flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf could be blamed on a man, the co-pilot Andreas Lubitz, suffering from severe depression.
So after years of improving attitudes and improving media coverage, even in the tabloids, here we were back again in the bad all days where mental illness could be freely demonised and where gross stereotypes could be applied to those affected. I have always disliked the kind of media scrum which follows a high profile tragedy like Tuesday’s crash where the media chase after every possible detail and angle on the story and where the currency of competition tends to be expressed in terms of the sensationalism of the headline or comment.
It is expected that the journey to change attitudes towards mental illness will take some twists. As I know well from my professional experience the narrative is not a totally simple one. Mental Illness can have a destructive impact, most often on the individual themselves, but in a small number of cases on those around the person. Such experiences must be understood and talked about but they do not justify blanket statements and stereotypes which have such a negative impact on people living with mental health problems.
We do not know, nor perhaps will we ever know, exactly what happened on that flight on Tuesday nor what was going through the mind of Andreas Lubitz. What is certain is that it was a horrific tragedy for the 150 people on board and their families. Having flown myself last weekend the news struck me all the more forcibly with that sense of the narrow lines of fate which divide the lucky from the unlucky in life. Flying is still a relatively recent achievement of mankind and there is still a deep seated superstition about it and morbid fascination about accidents which we do not direct to many of the mundane things which claim many more human lives each year. Despite what it involves flying is a remarkably safe activity. There will be lessons to learn from this incident but I also wish we would get as excited by motorists using mobile phones when they are driving.
The bold assertion made by some parts of the media is that it was outrageous that Andreas Lubitz, having a history of depression, should have been allowed to fly. Would the same have been said if he had been suffering from diabetes or another long term condition where, if badly managed, there is a risk of serious consequences? There are clearly circumstances where someone’s state of health means that they are unfit to carry out their job, especially if that job had the level of responsibility associated with being an airline pilot. Such judgements should be specific though to individual circumstances not a blanket exclusion of people with a history of a particular condition.
Depression is after all the most common mental health condition. Worldwide 8-12% of us should expect to experience it in our lifetimes. There are people with a history of depression in many if not all walks of life. It is no surprise to find that there are airline pilots who have suffered from it and there is no specific reason why, as a result, they should not be allowed to fly. It is, in many cases, a very treatable condition.
That is a link to the two final points I wish to make. Depression is a treatable condition but there is an enormous scandal about access to that treatment with more than 70% of people with the condition unlikely to be offered any form of treatment. The comparable figure for diabetes is less than 10%. There is an enormous economic and other consequence of that institutional bias against mental health. That lack of access to treatment is also probably the biggest single cause of the more than 4,000 lives lost through suicide each in this country.
The second point relates to disclosure. As I have said, there is insufficient detail to know exactly what happened with Andreas Lubitz. I have a sense that however that he may not have been in a position to be open about his issues as might have been ideal. Disclosure is difficult. While stigma is common and stereotypes abound there are lots of reasons why people feel that they cannot disclose a history of mental health issues. As I know from personal experience undisclosed issues are much harder to support and make it more difficult to put in place the reasonable adjustments which can make a crucial difference in the working life of someone who is living with a mental health condition such as depression. Friday’s coverage will have discouraged many more to be open about a history of mental illness.
By the end of the day having seen some of the response on social media and elsewhere I felt more reassured that, while a setback, Friday’s media coverage of this story was not a reversal of the progress which campaigns such as Time to Change have made. It does show how much is still to be done.