Labour’s shadow minister for mental health Rosena Allin-Khan has delivered the message on World Mental Health Day, taking place amid the coronavirus pandemic, that “we will get through this”.
In an exclusive interview with LabourList, the Labour frontbencher, former deputy leadership candidate and NHS doctor – who is undertaking a shift at her local emergency department this morning – said: “It’s okay not to feel okay.
“Everyone has been impacted by this virus in some way, shape or form, and the Labour Party is here to fight your corner. It’s important that we keep hopeful and we understand that we are all in this together, we will get through this, it won’t last forever.”
Allin-Khan was appointed by Keir Starmer in April as Labour’s spokesperson for mental health in the shadow cabinet, where she is shadowing Nadine Dorries. Throughout Covid-19, the Labour MP has worked 12-hour shifts in her local Tooting hospital.
“I’m enjoying the role immensely. It was quite interesting adopting a novel approach this week with picking apart some of their arguments in health questions by creating a video in which I unpicked the response that the minister gave me,” she told LabourList.
Allin-Khan on Friday did not have the opportunity to respond to the answers of Nadine Dorries at ‘health questions’ in the chamber, and instead made a video that she tweeted to address the comments online instead.
Dorries had said that she did “not recognise” Allin-Khan’s description of the “pending mental health crisis in our schools, colleges and universities” following the disruption of exams and strict rules for students on campuses.
The Labour MP told LabourList: “I’m not sure what parallel universe she is living in – particularly when the Education Secretary himself acknowledges that students will be suffering with their mental health.”
On her approach to the shadow cabinet post, Allin-Khan said: “I’m trying to bring some fight to the role, make the government feel hot under the collar and keep them on their toes. Because ultimately our communities deserve it.”
She described recent months as “challenging” as she has been “working throughout the Covid pandemic and then also having my dad in a care home and not being able to see him, just trying to manage homeschooling, while also taking on a new job”.
Allin-Khan added: “Really being in the shadow cabinet and being in a role that I’ve not been in before – it’s like taking on a new job, and I hadn’t thought about that until recently. I think there’s a lot going on but I hope I rose to the challenge.
“I certainly learnt to be kinder to myself and that’s really helped. Accepting that I’m only human and I don’t need to do everything all of the time. I can take five minutes for myself and it’s okay not to feel okay sometimes.”
The MP for Tooting stood as a candidate for Labour’s deputy leadership post earlier this year, which saw her place second after Angela Rayner – despite being relatively unknown compared to her rivals in the contest.
“I didn’t expect to come runner-up,” she said. “It was really quite fun and exciting but required a lot of energy. On the back of a general election, I was fighting in a campaign where I realise that only 5% of members knew who I was – rightly so, because I was such a new MP.”
She added: “That was really exciting, but obviously I had to travel around the country, so I was already physically tired when we went into the pandemic. But me being me and having all the energy in the world, I kept going, and it was only this summer that I thought, ‘gosh I do feel ready for a bit of a break’.”
On her work as a doctor and an MP, Allin-Khan told LabourList: “If I’m going to be a mental health champion, I want to be able to do that from the frontline of the NHS as well as in parliament. I think it’s important that what I’ve been gifted to be able to do – serve my community in the NHS – that I keep doing that.
“Obviously having a shadow cabinet role and working so hard on that and having a constituency where people are on their knees… I haven’t been able to do as many shifts as I may have done before, but I’m still keeping them up very regularly.”
Asked about her experiences of working in A&E during Covid-19, she said: “During the pandemic, people were generally coming in more unwell. Often people would stay away from A&E because they were concerned that they might catch the virus or concerned that they didn’t want to overwhelm the staff.
“Everybody’s actually very kind and thinks ‘the hospital is overwhelmed and I don’t want to make it more difficult for them, I don’t want to be a burden’, but I would say: please, please come. Please come and see us.
“When I was seeing patients that didn’t have Covid, I was seeing them more unwell than they might ordinarily be. For example, if someone was having a mental health issue, they were having a real crisis by the time I saw them.”
The Labour frontbencher has put forward a ‘Care for Carers’ plan designed to support the mental health of over three million NHS and care staff in England by offering fast-tracked help such as a new 24/7 national hotline.
Dr Allin-Khan said: “It’s really important to me that we leave nobody behind – hospital porters, cleaners. Anyone that went to work was clearly feeling vulnerable about their safety, but also a porter or cleaner can meet a bereaved family outside the intensive care and be affected by that.”
She added: “There is a distinct need in the NHS and with our care staff to support people who found it particularly stressful, being around Covid patients all of the time and having to break the most horrific news and break families’ hearts.”
Although she has invited ministers to discuss the proposals with her, because “mental health should not be a political football”, the shadow minister said “the government has refused to meet with me about it”.
While the opposition frontbencher expressed concern over the economic impact of Covid-19 on mental health and the effects of the “unclear messaging from government” on people’s lives, she wanted to deliver a “really positive message of hope” on World Mental Health Day.
“We are an incredibly country,” she told LabourList in the interview, reflecting the patriotism and positivity of Keir Starmer’s recent interventions. “We have really come together and done things we really never could have imagined doing.
“Who would have thought that we would have to spend months schooling our children from home, working in strange times in a weird environment, feeling anxious about our jobs? But I do think we’ve come together incredibly well.
“We are such a resilient country. And in the Labour Party, we know what it is to support our neighbours… It’s about saying: of course this has had an impact on people’s mental health. The government has to acknowledge this.
“I see it as my role in the shadow cabinet to really make sure it’s on the government agenda. And to highlight that mental health as a brief doesn’t exist in a health silo: this is about working together with my colleagues in education, housing, local government. To get it right for people.”
She added: “I think it’s really important for people’s mental health to feel a sense of hope, but to also know that although it might seem parliament isn’t able to interact as normal we are fighting your corner. We are not letting anything slide…
“This isn’t about trying to undo the damage of the last general election and winning back seats, this is about how we genuinely care about everyone and their lives and their mental health and wellbeing.”