Introducing Mental Health Week

Each day this week, the New Statesman website will be hosting a blog exploring mental health issues.

In the course of a single year, one in four people in the UK will experience some kind of mental health problem. And yet it’s a subject we’re only just beginning to talk about with any kind of openness. For instance, it wasn’t until last year, with the help of the Backbench Business Committee, that a whole debate in Parliament was dedicated to mental health issues, and it took until earlier this year to get a law passed that prevents people being disqualified as MPs if they suffer from a mental illness.

The reason for this silence is well-known, and can be expressed in a single word: stigma. The social stigma attached to being public about mental illness is so great that nine out of ten people with mental health problems say it has had a negative effect on their lives. The fear of discrimination in the workplace, from strangers, and even from colleagues, friends or partners prevents people from feeling comfortable speaking about their problems. This in turn can even make things worse – having to keep an illness secret and feeling like you are isolated without support is a terrible state to live in.

It’s for this reason that the New Statesman is hosting a week of blogs exploring and debating mental health issues. It feels as though we’re beginning to approach a point where lazy stereotypes are starting to give way to more informed discussion and substantive progress, and we want to do everything we can to push this forward faster. The umbrella topic of “mental health” informs everything from decisions in our individual lives to government policy, and we’ve tried to reflect that in the pieces we’ve commissioned for this week. There’s everything from novelist Rebecca Wait’s personal memoir of depression and language to Holly Armstrong’s discussion of gender balance and suicide rates to Willard Foxton’s experiences of living with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a lot more besides.

The aim of the week is to tell stories that might have remained untold in the past because of fear and discrimination, as well as discussing the policy steps we should be taking to improve things for people suffering from mental illness. We’re trying to start a conversation – practically, we can’t represent every single aspect of the subject, but we hope you’ll find something worth reading and discussing in the comments and on social media.

Each day, we’ll be posting the links to the new blogs on this page, so check back to read the latest posts.

Monday The darkness beyond language by Rebecca Wait and You can't make schizophrenia nice by Glosswitch

Tuesday Mental health and the myth of the "crazy lesbian" by Eleanor Margolis; Is writing online bad for your sanity? by Martin Robbins

Wednesday Domestic violence and mental illness by Faridah Newman and Not sleeping is awful beyond belief by Nicky Woolf

Thursday Living with PTSD by Willard Foxton and The uncomfortable truth about gender inequality on suicide by Holly Baxter

Friday Depression and austerity by Frances Ryan

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.