Last week, a friend was paying for something in a charity shop when she noticed the guy behind the counter taking ages over the till.
He was, he explained apologetically, suffering from chronic anxiety; he felt compelled to keep checking compulsively for mistakes even when he evidently hadn't made any, which is why he was working for the charity, because no other workplace would put up with his slowness.
My friend understood, because although you'd never guess it to look at her, she's been signed off work with chronic anxiety herself in the past. She's fine now, but it happens to more people than you'd think, and only now do many comfortable talking about it. A decade ago, neither he nor she could easily have had that conversation with a stranger.
So, when Theresa May vowed last month to tackle the “burning injustice” surrounding mental health by ensuring it was taken every bit as seriously as the physical kind, it felt like confirmation that the plates were finally shifting. That all those people going public with private struggles in an attempt to remove the stigma of mental illness – from Gwyneth Paltrow talking about her postnatal depression, via Mad Girl author Bryony Gordon's battles with OCD, to countless ordinary men and women confessing that, yup, they’ve been there – hadn’t done so in vain. People would get the help they needed, May promised, to lead happy and productive lives.
Only then along come George Freeman, the Conservative MP and head of the Downing Street policy board, arguing in a radio interviews that sickness benefits should be targeted on “really disabled” people, not those “taking pills at home for anxiety”. What was that about being taken seriously, again?
There are still plenty of people out there who believe that mental illness isn't 'proper' illness; that depression just means feeling a bit down in the dumps
It’s a rare stumble for Freeman, a thoughtful man who, as an ex-health minister, might have known better and who, as a human being, clearly does. Within hours, he had publicly expressed regret, confessing he too had experienced “traumatic anxiety” as a child growing up, caring for his alcoholic parents, and knew how serious it was.
But, whether or not it’s what he meant, the implication that chronic anxiety is something people should basically knuckle down and overcome – not something that can occasionally make it impossible to work, or even leave the house – is dangerous.
What seems to be worrying ministers is the threat of soaring sickness-benefit claims as people become more open about illnesses they were once perhaps ashamed to admit. Freeman made his comments while defending new rules introduced to tighten up benefit payments, after two successful legal challenges, one brought by an agoraphobic, which would have let thousands more people with relatively severe mental conditions claim Personal Independence Payment (a benefit to cover extra costs incurred by disabled people in managing anything, from dressing themselves to communicating with others).
But you can’t promise to take mental illness seriously and then panic when that turns out expensive. You can't leave sick people waiting endlessly for effective therapies, then be surprised if they get too ill to function. You either mean it or you don’t, and, rightly or wrongly, critics will see those few clumsy words as proof the government doesn’t really.
But the real damage here is human, not political.
There are still plenty of people out there who believe that mental illness isn't “proper” illness; that depression just means feeling a bit down in the dumps, not physically unable to get out of bed, or OCD is just a fancy word for being obsessively tidy. They may get that it’s not politically correct to say so but, deep down, that's what they still think, and they hardly need encouragement from on high.
It’s taken years for attitudes to change, even to the point where Lily Allen could respond to Twitter trolls accusing her of being mentally ill last weekend by saying that, actually, yes, she is bipolar, had postnatal depression and suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after her son was stillborn – and so what? Her opinions on immigration, which is what started the trolling, are as valid as anyone else’s. She has absolutely nothing to be ashamed about.
And most people will have responded with kindness and admiration for her courage in being open about it. But there were still enough vile, twisted idiots thinking otherwise for Allen to announce a few hours later that she was taking time off Twitter. If we’ve learnt one thing lately about prejudice of all kinds, it’s that it rarely dies entirely – it just goes underground, waiting for its chance to break out. And it really doesn’t take much to set it free again.