“I didn’t join a party of protest. I joined the Labour Party to change things.”

The prejudices around mental health need to change and Luciana Berger wants to be the one to change them.

Luciana Berger mental health NHS

Mental health is a huge problem. A huge problem that is still not getting enough press. Twenty percent of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year. Only this week, we’ve seen here in Cambridge how some students are taking prescription drugs that are not prescribed for them, as a way of coping with stress and anxiety.

Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree and has taken on the role of shadow minister for mental health, a newly created position under leader Jeremy Corbyn. I asked her how she feels to be the first person to be holding this position. “I am very privileged.” Luciana won the Labour safe seat in 2010 after a controversial campaign.

Some members of the party suggested she had help to take the seat and that senior Labour Party officials parachuted her in. Former neighbouring MP Peter Kilfoyle claimed that there was “an operation to put this woman into the seat”. There was also suggestive speculation about her friendship with Tony Blair’s son, Euan. They were once seen in a nightclub together according to the reliable source that is the Daily Mail online.

Luciana and I in coordinating outfits. I don't think I've ever looked happier.

Luciana and I in coordinating outfits and I don’t think I’ve ever looked happier.

Luciana spoke passionately about the prejudices and taboos that still surround issues of mental health in the UK. Although mental health issues are beginning to become part of the mainstream political agenda, there is still a huge gap between physical and mental disabilities. “There’s disparity at the very heart of our NHS”, Luciana said. “I want to focus on prevention and education. There should be social and emotional learning so young people can learn to communicate their mental health.”

“We’re in a situation at the moment where people who are in serious mental state are being turned away because their condition isn’t perceived to be ‘serious’ enough.” Luciana recounted the story of a girl who was only deemed ill enough for help after she attempted to take her own life, twice. “Too many people are getting the help they need too late. The threshold for services is too high.”

Luciana explained that it’s all well and good giving schools PSHE funds, for instance, but what is important is making sure that money is actually spent on the right things. Luciana went on to say how she wants to make sure that people know the resources are available. “I’m working very closely with the shadow chancellor who’s very interested in this.”

MIND camoaign encouraging students to give their younger selves some advice

Some Cambridge students  taking part in Student Minds campaign.

Luciana kept referring to the unity of the shadow cabinet. She emphasised the Labour Party’s unity again when asked whether she would be better off leaving the “unelectable Labour Party” and joining a mental health organisation instead, which might accomplish more. “Together we are united in our task to a) hold the government to account, and b) ensure that we are developing a really exciting alternative for the next general election, which is unfortunately four and a half years away, but that’s a task I’m going to be focussed on.”

Luciana seemed positively excited at the prospect of another general election (although I’m not sure any other Labour MP is). Her boss, Mr Corbyn, has come under fire this week for his choice of aides. Seumas Milne, Corbyn’s right-hand man, has been accused of being “overly sympathetic to authoritarian regimes”.

But when bombarded with questions about Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘electability’ and appeal, Berger, who has often been labelled a Blairite, responded by praising the left-wing Labour leader. “I’m really encouraged that Jeremy Corbyn is so committed to this policy area.”

She took on a more indignant tone when asked by one student what she genuinely thought Labour’s prospects were in the next election “in terms of Jeremy Corbyn”. “What do you mean in terms of Jeremy Corbyn? We’ve got four and a half years to hold the government to account and expose both the in-fighting in the Tories themselves, and their inability to look out for the whole country.”

She went on to list the numerous services that have been closed under the Conservative Government, which have caused serious problems for people suffering from mental health conditions: seven hundred children’s centres, many citizens’ advice bureaux and youth services just don’t exist anymore.

“As far as I’m concerned we have a Government that is committed to tearing apart the social fabric of our great nation and you only have to look at all the services that were glue in our communities that no longer exist.”

I asked what her thoughts were on the recent case of the Women’s Campaign self-care group swapping prescription drugs over their Facebook group. She refused to comment on the particulars of the case but agreed there’s clearly a problem.

“There is an over-dependency on prescription drugs. There was a meeting in Parliament only yesterday about it. It’s not an issue that is properly supported. We talk about drug and alcohol treatment but that largely doesn’t include anyone that might be addicted to prescription drugs. It’s a massive issue in our country. Particularly prescriptions for benzo-like drugs – people should only really have them for two weeks.”

Controversy over swapping prescription drugs on the WomCam self-help group

Controversy over swapping prescription drugs on the WomCam self-care group this week.

So what can we do about this problem? “It needs attention on a national level. It’s the responsibility of medical professional themselves to be aware of this issue and try and really get it and acknowledge it’s something really distinct from alcohol and drug addictions.”

Studies have shown that there is a link between social media usage and conditions like depression and anxiety. Luciana herself has suffered horrendous and racist ‘trolling’ on Twitter.

“I’m not worried about the way [social media] impacts me, but the way it impacts people outside politics. I’ve spoken very publicly about my own experiences because I’m concerned about that school student who doesn’t have a voice, doesn’t have the support, doesn’t have the confidence to talk about it.”

But doesn’t she think that social media ultimately has more negatives than positives? “I am still a massive supporter and proponent of social media. I think on balance it’s a really good way as a constituency MP to communicate with the people that elected me to represent them. We need to harness all the positives around it.”

“I’m absolutely committed to winning in 2020, because I didn’t join a party of protest. I joined the Labour party to change things,” Luciana affirms at the end of her speech. The emphatic message seemed to be one of determination. “We’ve come a long way in terms of mental health, but there’s a long way to go.”

@LottieHowson