Lived experience – an interview with Rosena Allin-Khan

The daughter of a single parent in south London, Rosena Allin-Khan was told medicine wasn’t for the likes of her. Turns out it was. The emergency medicine doctor, MP and shadow mental health minister talks to Keith Cooper about deprivation, inclusivity and the benefits of belligerence

Location: UK
Published: Friday 11 September 2020
rosena khan

Rosena Allin-Khan, emergency medicine doctor and Labour MP for Tooting, London, began her national political career in turbulent and tragic times.

She was elected on 16 June, 2016, the day Yorkshire MP Jo Cox was murdered, as the country prepared to vote to leave the EU, decades after it joined.

‘My children at the time were a baby and two and a half,’ she recalls.

This April, after winning her seat for the third time in the 2019 election, she was appointed shadow minister for mental health, as COVID-19 cases climbed to their first-wave peak, and while shifting at NHS Nightingale, London, as a link between patients and families.

There’s still a resounding stigma attached to [mental health]

Dr Allin-Khan

Now, five months into the new role, Dr Allin-Khan is telling The Doctor about her plans to shape party policy with her experience in medicine, life, and humanitarian aid. With NHS Nightingale shut, she’s back at St George’s, south London, and finished her latest shift the weekend before we speak. ‘I’m really committed to my medical career,’ she says. ‘I fought so hard to be a doctor.’

‘I am pushy and belligerent’ is how she describes herself but it’s not how she comes across in our interview. Thoughtful, open, and unafraid to admit of her own frailties, are more like it. They’re qualities many might welcome in mental health care – alongside that belligerence and pushiness for better and kinder care.

‘I know how hard an area this is to tackle,’ Dr Allin-Khan says. ‘I’ve had first-hand experience. There is so much to cover. While there has been some great strides forward made in mental health in recent years, there’s still a resounding stigma attached to it.’

Social deprivation

Dr Allin-Khan sees her role and mental health policy as broad in scope, extending beyond NHS services. ‘Mental and physical health don’t sit in siloes in a health department,’ she says. ‘There’s issues of housing, of drug and alcohol abuse and the drivers behind that’. With a master’s in public health, she’s a keen interest in prevention and the ‘bigger picture’. ‘All of the inequalities we see feeds into that,’ Dr Allin-Khan adds.

This bigger picture is played out, she adds, ‘in technicolour’ in her constituency surgeries in Tooting, where people bring her their problems, and in the emergency department, where she still works as a doctor.

‘People come in with breathing difficulties but when you dig deeper you realise they’ve got this because they live in a mouldy flat and have been on the housing list for years. All of these things form a very fine interplay of experiences and people’s life situations which really help frame how I can be the best possible advocate for them.’

She has nothing but praise for staff who work in mental healthcare.

‘They work tremendously hard. They do the best job that they can, given the lack of resources,’ Dr Allin-Khan adds. ‘We have a huge issue with retention of an already stretched workforce. Everyone I speak to in the mental health sector are saying that workforce is really strained and they need more help, more workforce, more resources.’

She wants to work ‘in partnership’ with colleagues, those already involved in mental health care, and the NHS, and sees a boost in the workforce, especially in the community, as a key means of improving the service.

‘Sometimes people report having to wait so long to see somebody to support them with their mental ill health that they deteriorate to the point where they need to become an inpatient,’ Dr Allin-Khan adds.

‘I saw colleagues cry’

She is keen too, however, to hear from those whose concerns are yet to be acted upon.

‘I very recently had a roundtable with LGBTQ+ charities. I took a lot away from that,’ she says. ‘There is a disproportionate amount of homelessness, they say their mental ill health started at school.’ Such points prompt conversations with party colleagues, she says. ‘Reducing mental health inequalities requires working across departments, education, equalities and justice.’

Her first big policy push as shadow mental health minister was a call for a Care for Carers package to better support the mental health of NHS and care staff through the COVID-19 crisis. It was driven by her experience on the front line during COVID-19. ‘I saw many senior colleagues break down and cry,’ she adds. ‘It definitely affected my mental health and the mental health of most people I know.’

We have a huge issue with retention of an already stretched workforce

Dr Allin-Khan

She’s working with trade unions to see what other employers can do to help staff feel safe enough to call in sick with mental health issues, like anxiety and addiction. ‘People don’t feel that they can do that. They fear losing their job. I want to see an attitude shift so that there is compassion and empathy towards those suffering from mental ill health so that we can all support people in recovering faster.’

Once the COVID crisis has passed, Dr Allin-Khan expects to focus on three main policy areas: child and adolescent mental health services, suicide, particularly in young men, and stigma.

She wants to ‘bring everyone into the conversation’. ‘When you look at suicide in young men, you can talk to LGBT men, you can talk to black, ethnic minority, and Asian men, engaging with different groups so they have a voice.’

Developing CAHMS policy might involve conversations about resources to reduce waiting times but also about the impact on under-twos of COVID-19. This shadow minister, it seems, is very much in listening mode, keen to hear from all and anyone about what needs to be done.

Breaking the stigma of mental ill health is a real challenge, she says.

‘I have noticed that how responsive people are to the issue of mental ill health is often borne out of their own personal experiences,’ she adds. To match this rhetoric, she shares of her own.

‘It’s really great and important to have celebrities talk about mental ill health. What we also need, in addition, is to have normal everyday people talking about mental ill health and how they’ve recovered and the support they’ve received to bring home just how it can affect everyone.’

From personal experience she knows the impact on family and friends. ‘I have supported people through very dark times.’ she says. ‘It’s terribly difficult. All consuming. It is particularly painful and challenging to care for somebody who you see suffering, particularly when you know the help they need is six months away.’

She admits to her own challenges, as a doctor, after witnessing ‘difficult, painful situations’, mass casualties and deaths, on humanitarian missions. As an MP she’s struggled with an ‘overwhelming commitment’ to speak for the refugees she met on the Myanmar border. ‘I couldn’t say no to a single interview. I exhausted myself.’

Threats and abuse

As a female, Muslim MP of mixed heritage, what she calls her ‘tri-factor of doom’, she receives much abuse, even death threats that, understandably, have their own impact. ‘I’ve had months where I’ve lost sleep, where I’ve really had to manage my feelings.’

Just being an MP, of course, joined her to a stigmatised, untrusted profession as she continues a medical career, one of the most trusted.

For all its challenges, Dr Allin-Khan says Parliament would benefit from more MPs with professional experience. She’s the only doctor on the Labour benches. ‘I’d love to see more doctors, nurses, porters, everyone, because lived life experiences make you an incredible advocate. We’ve got to support one another to get there.’

Being a politician, for her, seems in a way an extension of her medical career or what moved her towards it.

As the daughter of a single parent, working three jobs to survive, she was told ‘medicine wasn’t for kids like me’. She became an emergency medicine doctor ‘to meet the kids like me to change the path for them’ and a politician to ‘improve people’s lives in a way that my life needed improving when I was growing up’, Dr Allin-Khan says.

Now, with this shadow ministerial post, she’s the chance to alter some paths and make some improvements on the national stage. 

Image: The Scotsman