'I'm a posh bloke from a broken family. I hope 'fessing up helps destigmatise it'

‘Yahoo News - Insights’ is a new series in which we hear directly from people with an inside track of the big issues. Here, Tory peer Lord Bethell opens up about how his own experiences growing up with a parent with mental illness has shaped the work he does now

Lord Bethell (right) served as a health minister under Boris Johnson during the Covid pandemic. (Getty)
Lord Bethell (right) served as a health minister under Boris Johnson during the Covid pandemic. (Getty)
  • Tory peer Lord James Bethell is a former minister for technology, innovation and life sciences, who served in the Department of Heath at the height of the COVID pandemic between 2020 and 2021. His mother died when he was 10 years old after battling addiction and mental illness.

  • Lord Bethell features in the latest episode of the podcast series ‘My Family, Mental Illness and Me’ from charity Our Time, which supports children who have parents with mental illnesses.

From when I was a very small child, my mother really struggled with postnatal depression, which sadly eventually killed her when I was 10 years old after a huge struggle with alcohol, drugs and mental illness. I talk about it, hopefully to help others who have lived through similar experiences.

My very earliest memory was really the breakdown of her marriage when I was four years old. We lived in a huge Georgian house in Ascot and my mother and father bought it in the hopes of having a long and happy family life there. But when she had me and then when she had my brother, she was really hit hard by postnatal depression and declined really quickly into a mania of drinking and being unable to cope with life.

My father, for his part, had had a very tough childhood in the war, had been sent abroad and had not seen his own parents until he was five years old. He found it really difficult to cope with what my mother was going through. And in the 1970s, attitudes were different and she took the full brunt of the blame for her mental struggles.

Their marriage broke down when I was four years old. Really, my first memory was walking down an avenue of trees at our big house, holding her hand as she told me that she was going to be going away and that we were going to be selling the house. I was really baffled by the whole thing and found it very odd.

She had electric shock treatment. It was utterly brutal, old-school medicine.

Another sort of half memory involves being in the car, driving away from that big house and stopping for an ice cream on the way. I asked: "When are we going to be going back?" And my father said, "No, we're never going to be going back". I then asked, "Will mummy be at where are we going?" He said, "No, mummy's going somewhere else".

That was kind of like the beginning of my formal childhood. From then on, I saw my mother on Sunday mornings but lived with my father because my mother was in no condition to look after us.

She was hospitalised quite a few times, sometimes because her condition had deteriorated so badly, and then partly from treatment - she did some quite long and extended stays and had electric shock treatment. It was utterly brutal, old-school medicine.

I don't think any of it helped. She had injections and pills to try and stop her from drinking, which made her sick when she drank. But if you have those medicines and you don't have the support, then they never work really.

Watch: Lord Bethell opens up about mother's suicide

The health system was against her. She had an affair with her doctor, which nowadays would be regarded as completely inappropriate. I met him many times. I always regarded him as a sort of weak and creepy guy. The legal system was also against her. She was denigrated. She was considered to be a bad mother and all the sympathy was with my father.

I do think she was killed for being a woman. The health system really let her down, both in terms of the understanding of her condition, which had never had any proper research or thoughtfulness behind it, and in terms of her basic treatment, which was just suboptimal.

Postnatal depression as a phenomenon is still hugely part of our lives. It is a great unspoken part of family experience, and people still struggle with it and get knocked back by it. It’s just a classic example of where the medical system overlooks women and their conditions.

She was killed for being a woman

For all of her faults, Nadine Dorries did a very powerful piece of work as the minister for women’s health. She also put together the women’s health strategy. And when you read it, you realise how poorly we understand many basic conditions for women and how little research goes in and how the treatment is so poor. It does make me very angry. My experience left me troubled, and with issues with relationships. I think some of that’s because I’m just a clunky posh bloke, but part of it is because I have certain protections in place.

I hope in a funny sort of way that being a posh bloke 'fessing up to coming from a broken family, I’ve helped de-stigmatise it.

Trying to blame your parents, it all seems rather Californian and Prince Harry, and I’m sort of uncomfortable with that on one level. On the other hand, it is such a big thing in my life, it’s so obviously defined me and coloured every decision I’ve ever made. It’s so obviously a huge part of my character… it seems nuts not to mention it.

It's also affected my work. I have been following the Online Safety Bill in the House of Lords and I’ve been focused on trying to bring in really effective age verification for pornography. As I spent more and more time looking at what’s happening with our children - with tens of millions of very young adolescents having mobile phones in their pockets and consuming huge amounts of really nasty, hardcore, physically aggressive pornography, I have been reminded on a very personal basis of my own childhood.

Lord Bethell said his own experiences as a child have shaped his drive to protect children through the Online Safety Bill. (Stock image: Getty)
Lord Bethell said his own experiences as a child have shaped his drive to protect children through the Online Safety Bill. (Stock image: Getty)

The fact I think about my mother every day makes me realise that a childhood lasts a lifetime. And when I think about the mistake we’re making, allowing big tech entrepreneurs into the bedrooms and schoolyards and school buses of our children, distributing horrid, nasty, suicide, anorexia, pornographic content without any regulation at all - without any thought for what this is doing to their brains - it makes me really angry and worried.

I think we’ve been real suckers. We somehow deluded ourselves into thinking that what happens online is different. And we bought into this stupid idea that somehow the internet was innovative and somehow it didn’t matter if you know what goes on.

But with all of these mobile phones, tablets and computers in our children’s bedrooms and pockets, I think we’re causing huge, huge harm.

With all of these mobile phones and computers in our children’s bedrooms, we’re causing huge, huge harm.

It woke up in me a memory and a realisation that I was carrying with me in my heart and in my behaviours today; things that happened 50 years ago have changed me and had a big impact on me. We’re letting that harm now happen in a lot of people’s lives, and we’re going to look back and really regret it.

Being a health minister opened my eyes to a problem we’ve got more broadly with forgetting how important childhood is in the round.

I’m very keen for my children to be very independent and I’m not a very protective parent. I’m pushing them out into the world of adventure but I have really realised that the environment they grow up in, and some of the things that they’re encountering, are really damaging and counterproductive.

The idea that Mark Zuckerberg has more insight into how to bring up my children than I do is quite wrong. The guy should not be responsible for being in my children’s bedrooms at night - he’s totally ill-suited for that. And families should be empowered to make many more of these decisions - both in terms of access to content and also the treatment of addictions and harms when they happen.

So for me, it was a really personal connection and the energy and the commitment I’ve put into trying to change the law on age verification for porn was motivated by my own personal experience. Therefore it just made sense to try to get that message across and to share it a bit with people.

I hope in a funny sort of way that being a posh bloke 'fessing up to coming from a broken family, I’ve helped de-stigmatise it.

Edited by Ellen Manning

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