Am I eligible for free mental health care? How would I know?

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘So how long have you been having these irrational thoughts?” I pause to think this through. It’s important to give the correct answer. I have to strike just the right balance with the kind lady from the Mental Health Access Team who has phoned to assess me. If she thinks I’m not mentally unstable enough, she will not refer me for free counselling. If she thinks I’m too mentally unstable, she might call in the social and tell them to take my kids away. Would she actually do that? On balance, probably not. Nevertheless, I must tread carefully.
 
I immediately decide against the honest answer, which is that I don’t think my depression is “irrational” at all. It is based on hard facts, many of them scientifically provable. First, our flat is too small for a family of four. Second, there is now officially no chance of us ever being able to move out. Third, our joint incomings do not match our outgoings and we have no savings or pensions. Fourth, the government has no interest in making things better for families like us – or, indeed, anyone other than their Old Etonian buddies. Fifth, the destruction of the environment continues unchecked, with consequences that are likely to prove utterly disastrous for humanity within my children’s lifetime.
 
I’d argue, on balance, that this is reason enough to feel legitimately less than 100 per cent zip-a-dee-doo-dah. On the other hand, whatever your circumstances, your glass could always be half full. No doubt it is partly the way I am perceiving the difficulties which makes them feel insurmountable. If I were more of a can-do type of personality, I’d be out there doing a jolly tap-dance on the grave of Europe’s bee populations.
 
“It started a couple of months ago. The baby stopped sleeping. We were buying a house and then it fell through . . .” I give her the sorry list of symptoms: the exhaustion, the creeping insomnia, the almost constant snivelling. She sounds pleasingly concerned. This is going well.
 
“Any suicidal feelings?”
 
Gosh. Funnily enough I did catch myself lying in bed the other day, thinking how nice it would be never to have to get up ever again, never to have to deal with another unexpected bill or another broken night . . . but it was more an idle thought than an active planning-to-kill-myself thing. Does that count as suicidal? I’m not sure.
 
“No,” I say firmly. “Not at all.”
 
“Good,” she says briskly. “So what I’m going to do is recommend that you come in for a full assessment session with one of our mental health nurses. You should receive a letter in the post.”
 
“Great. Thank you.” Result! I can’t wait for them to make me better again. “And how long will it take to get the appointment?”
 
“It shouldn’t be more than six weeks.”
 
SIX WEEKS!!! I can’t wait six weeks. Curly is on the brink of disowning me. I’m on the brink of disowning myself. I take a deep breath. “Right. Well, thank you very much for your help.” As I hang up, the tears have already formed a puddle on the keypad.
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 19 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Why aren’t young people working

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Peter Hitchens on Twitter seemed barely human – then he came round for tea

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me.

But what about Peter Hitchens?” everyone is asking after my last encounter with him. He came round to the Hovel, you see, the day before the column, in which I said all sorts of nasty things about him, appeared. The reason why he came round is complicated and boring, but suffice it to say that books were exchanged, in a spirit of mutual diplomatic tension.

I offered him a choice of red wine, whisky, or tea. It was five o’clock. (He was punctual, which unsurprised me. He chose tea; he is not a fan of intoxication. Aha! I thought, he’ll love this: as a foe of modernity in many of its aspects, such as duvets and central heating, he will appreciate the fact that I do not use tea bags. Loose Assam leaves, put into a scalded teapot. “Conservative in everything except politics” was a formulation – originally, I think, applied to George Orwell – that Peter’s late brother was fond of, and I thought my old-fashionedness would soothe him.

Not exactly: he noticed I was pouring semi-skimmed milk into the mug. Of course you put the milk in last when you are using tea bags. When pouring from a pot, you put the milk in first. Milk poured in afterwards does not emulsify satisfactorily. If you are one of those people who say “but how do you know if you’ve put in the right amount of milk?” then I exhort you to start trusting your pouring arm.

Semi-skimmed milk, I learned quickly, is a no-no in the world of P Hitchens.

“But Orwell himself,” I replied urbanely, “said that milk that was too creamy made the tea taste unpleasant. Not, of course, that I believe everything Orwell said, but on tea-making he is sound.”

Mr Hitchens demurred, saying that Orwell was referring to the equivalent of what we know today as Gold Top. This allowed me to go off on a little rant, a positive, life-enhancing rant, about how good Gold Top is, how my children love it, etc. We moved into the living room. I noticed my shoes were more old-fashioned than his. Come to think of it, they may have been older than him. They’re almost certainly older than me.

There was a mood of civility in the air. Slightly strained, perhaps, like his tea, but unmistakably present. Part of the reason was that I had mentioned our forthcoming meeting on a social medium, and two of my friends, one a well-known novelist, the other a well-known columnist, both women, both left wing, had asked me, extremely sincerely, to pass on their best wishes. They knew him of old, had worked with him, were fond of him. These are two women whose opinions I take very seriously indeed. The Peter Hitchens I knew, of column and Question Time panel, was clearly not the whole picture. If these women say he’s Basically All Right, or All Right enough to ask me to pass on their best wishes, then that is pretty much good enough for me.

During his visit I realised I had an awkward duty facing me. I was becoming increasingly conscious that, the next day, in newsagents throughout the land, the latest edition of this magazine would appear, and in it, on page 82, would be a column by me, which contained several jokes at the expense of P Hitchens, Esq. And I knew that this column would not escape his vigilance. I massaged the bridge of my nose and launched into a pre-emptive apology. “I think I had better tell you...”

He seemed to take it fairly well, though I’d not given him the full nature of my assault. When we were tossing insults back and forth on Twitter, he seemed barely human; now, in my living room, he all too clearly was. I suppose this is how we all see our enemies on Twitter: as botched versions of the Turing Test, spouting opinions that are quite clearly wrong in spite of all our well-reasoned arguments. The only variable is how quickly the arguments de-evolve into base invective. I have my own theory about this. It involves Lacan, so I’ll spare you.

A couple of days later I received an email from him, courteously asking after me and my latest troubles, the ones I can’t write about due to their immensity. It also contained the precise quote from Orwell regarding milk in tea. (“Ninthly, one should pour the cream off the milk before using it for tea. Milk that is too creamy always gives tea a sickly taste.” You have to love that “ninthly”.) “Tempus mutatur,” I replied... but noted, too, that there was no mention of That Column. I was rather impressed. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear