His party may be out of power, but Norman Lamb’s voice is stronger than ever. As one of eight remaining Lib Dem MPs, Westminster duties continue. “Norman has to be in the chamber, could we possibly reschedule?” requests his aide. Yet Lamb’s greatest cause transcends politics. On the day of our interview, a week later, Lamb introduces himself with “apologies for the later hour. I just did an ITV news interview with my son, who’s suffered from OCD.”
To the outside world, 27-year-old Archie Lamb was the successful music producer behind Tinchy Stryder; ten years ago, Norman and wife Mary remortaged their house to fund the rapper’s first album. Behind closed doors, however, Archie was “having to put on a front and convince everyone he was fine. This only increased the strain of the illness.”
Not only did Lamb stand by his son, during a decade-long battle with OCD, he then turned the “painful” experience into a career-long commitment to mental health. Until 2015, neither father nor son had publicly discussed Archie’s illness. “He was very worried that, if he spoke out, it would damage his career.” Lamb reveals. “The turning point came in March, when we did a joint interview with The Times. The support he received was incredible.”
For Norman Lamb, the associated stigma of mental illness lies at the heart of his cause. Following the May Election, which terminated the Coalition government and Lamb’s time as Care Minister, he describes spending the summer “thinking how I could maintain pressure from the outside. I then wondered, rather than the usual suspects making the argument for equality, could we bring together a stellar cast from across society?” So Equality 4 Mental Health was born.“I gave Alistair Campbell a ring back in August and put the idea to him.” Lamb recounts. “He really liked it and suggested contacting Andrew Mitchell.”
The awful cliff edge of 18 is clinically DISASTROUS
As a cross-party alliance, the three men were united in their shared experiences of mental health; Campbell has been vocal about his past with alcoholism, while Mitchell has suffered from depression. “From there, we started to approach people and found that virtually everyone said yes. It shows attitudes are starting to change.
“Ruby Wax was a force of nature; she exploited her address book brilliantly!” Lamb laughs. “We arrived at an A-list cast of celebrities and I also approached professionals.” The result was a ‘who’s who’ of public figures, which include Miranda Hart, Sir Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Sir Steve Redgrave and the Archbishop of Canterbury. “They all united in a call for equality. The more people who sign up, the stronger our voice will be.”
“Our primary objective is to try and influence the Chancellor [in the Spending Review]. It is a defining moment” for the cause of mental health. “We’ve got to get dedicated extra resources. The way the system works, mental health will always lose out. Even if the NHS gets an adequate settlement, the system is so unbalanced.”
In his two years as Care Minister, Lamb witnessed it first-hand. “You have this whole set of very politically powerful access standards for physical health, with the 4 hour A&E target and 18 week referral targets,” reveals Lamb. “In the NHS, hospital funding works through ‘payment by results’, so the more patients that are referred and meet the waiting times, the more money the hospital gets.”
Targets are synonymous with the public sector, yet equally eludes mental health. “Until April this year, a maximum waiting time standard for mental health did not exist.” The introduction of waiting times, at the start of 2015, was an issue Lamb threatened to resign over. His reasoning is clear: “There’s a wealth of evidence for early intervention providing a better outcome,” he stresses.
“In psychosis, for example, evidence shows that, if you intervene quickly after a first psychotic episode, you can often stop that condition in its tracks, stop further episodes and, ultimately, give that person a chance for a good life. If you neglect it and it becomes entrenched, all the chances are this person will have a life on benefits and damaged relationships.”
Here, Lamb highlights how this is both “a moral and economic argument. It’s morally repugnant to neglect mental health, but it is also economically stupid, with its cost to the economy. The fact is, we’re not smart on how we spend money. We spend a fortune on benefits, rather than preventing it at the start.” It is refreshing to hear such candid words from the mouth of an MP. If only more politicians understood that straight-talk – rather than selfies and sarnies – is the way into public imagination.
This is a moment where we move forward or slip further back
I broach the specific topic of student mental health, which Exeposé covered in a recent interview with Student Minds. “It would be laughable if it wasn’t so deadly serious,” responds Lamb, after I share my personal struggle with the dual post-
code system, “it’s unbelievable that, if you choose to register with a University GP, you are subsequently isolated from a sec-
ondary care team at home. It would simply never happen with physical health.”
Lamb also disputes the transition between child and adult services. “On Radio Essex this morning, there was a teenager who spoke very movingly about her own experience. After the age of 18, services were just withdrawn.” On the impact of this, Lamb’s candour is once again palpable. “It is clinically disastrous,” he asserts, “when you consider so much is happen-
ing at that time in your life. One thing I tried to do as a minister was to end this awful cliff edge of 18,” he continues “We included this in our March 2015 Taskforce Report, ‘future in mind’, which called for continued support into the early 20s.”
Following May’s Tory majority, Lamb is determined that the voice of mental health will not be barred from No.10: “I went to see the Chancellor last week,” he informs me, ‘‘along with Andrew Mitch-
ell and Paul Farmer, the Chief Executive of Mind. He gave us a decent amount of time and committed to seriously considering the issues raised.” Lamb disloses,“Nick Clegg negotiated a £1 billion extra sum for children’s mental health over the 5 year period. I want something akin to that, within this spending review.
“This is a moment where we move forward or we slip further back. Am I confident? Sadly no. The rumours I hear are not encouraging. I am hoping George Osborne might watch the ITV interview, but I have my doubts.” While we cannot confirm if the Chancellor did hear Archie’s story, the Spending Review defied expectation. On 25 November, two days after we spoke, Osborne announced a £600 million investment into mental health services, after personally thanking Lamb for the strength of his campaign.
Notwithstanding this triumph, his campaign is not over, Lamb stresses. “This movement of change has many dimensions. It starts at the top with the government’s funding obligations. But when you start to speak out from the ground level, it has the power to reach every school, university, workplace and organisation in the country. Through myself and Archie speaking on television, along with every other story shared, it makes it that little easier for the next person to come forward and seek help.”
Notwithstanding this triumph, his campaign is not over
As a parliamentarian, a minister and public figure, Norman Lamb is synonymous with the “cause for equality” in our nation’s health. Yet perhaps, most resonant for me, was the story of father and son. As I watched their ITV interview the next day, I was not only struck by Archie’s words, but the unmistakable loyalty of the 57-year-old sat beside him. On the subject of mental health, personal experience rises above any political point scoring.
In his speech at the Liberal Democrat’s Spring Conference this year, the MP concluded: “My family is not unique. I will bring mental health out of the shadows for all.” After the success of Equality 4 Mental Health for the Spending Review, I am certain his resolve will only be stronger. For when it comes to talking about the elephant in the room, there is no silencing The Rt. Hon Norman Lamb.