Speaking to the Royal College of Psychiatrists this morning, Labour party leader Ed Miliband said the UK needed a mental health strategy "outside as well as inside the National Health Service, tackling the culture and changing the way our society treats mental health". According to Miliband, mental health will only cease to be a problem if all people with mental health difficulties can find their place in life, with taboos lifted and everyone pulling in the same direction.
Running through a list of celebrities and public figures who have recently spoken publicly about their own mental health difficulties including his own party's Alastair Campbell and the MPs Kevan Jones and Charles Walker Miliband took a brief pause for a pointed dig at cultural commentators who "abuse the privilege of their celebrity to insult, demean and belittle others".
He specifically named Jeremy Clarkson (in comedian Stewart Lee's brilliant words, "the alpha male with outrageous politically incorrect opinions which he has for money") for calling railway track suicides "selfish" and Janet Street-Porter, whom Miliband quotes as saying depression is the "latest must-have accessory" promoted by the "misery movement" (as a fully paid-up member of said movement, I can assure you that the benefits are disappointing no free wallet, badge or secret code book).
It's a brave politician in these times of hardening attitudes that takes on "the politically incorrect community". Perhaps unwittingly, Miliband has managed to get to the heart of a gnarly problem when he mentioned privilege the perceived right enjoyed by people without mental health difficulties to speak with authority about those who do. Humour cuts right to the heart of this imbalance because it thrives on taboos, on saying the unsayable.
I'm sure some of the comments on this article will say: "Why are you pesky people with mental health difficulties always looking to get offended? A joke's a joke!" But gags about people with mental health difficulties are different, because of where the power lies; they too often come from people who are reconfirming the status quo, defending attitudes and structures that prevent people with mental health difficulties achieving our potential. In other words, they are jokes and ideas that help "keep us in our place", out of sight and unheard.
On the other hand, jokes by people with mental health difficulties about mental health are often about the gap between outmoded ideas and lived experience, or about reclaiming common experiences from prejudiced interpretation. Sometimes, the comedy itself is directly confrontational: the live comedy nights May Contain Nuts and US comedian Rob Delaney being brilliant ambassadors of the genre.
It's welcome that Miliband's speech accepts that things are changing. He's right to suggest that while more people are feeling able to talk about mental health, this isn't something that is always rewarded in a country where prejudice and ignorance still exist.
By opening both on a cultural front (attitudes and prejudices) and a policy front (changes to legislation, development of services), Miliband positions the Labour party as the leader of a grand crusade against not just mental ill health, but also the structural and societal factors holding back those that experience it.
This is a good beginning; I now hope that Labour will continue to pay such attention to who is speaking about mental health and where their privilege lies as their policy development continues.
This article was commissioned after a suggestion from FoodBankBritain