Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan talks to Sarah Freeman about how his own life has been touched by depression and alcoholism.
TOM RIORDAN never felt compelled to talk much about the time he spent in care as a very young child. Nor did he open up often about his mother’s bipolar or his father’s alcoholism.
I want to show that people with mental health problems aren’t failures. In many ways my mum and dad were heroes.Tom Riordan, Leeds City Council chief executive
There was, says the chief executive of Leeds City Council, no need. Despite the issues, his was a loving family and whatever impact his parents’ illnesses had on his childhood he had dealt with them and moved on.
“What changed was meeting a 12-year-old boy who was in care,” says Tom, who is backing the Yorkshire Evening Post’s new #SpeakYourMind campaign – launched in partnership with the Leeds Community Foundation – to make people open up about mental health issues. “We started talking and I told him that when I was younger I had been in care too. I didn’t make a big thing out of it, but later his carer emailed me to say that it had really meant a lot for him to meet someone who had been in care and who had done OK. From that point I decided that where appropriate I would talk about my experience.
“Compared to what many others go through, the impact mental health has had on my life is minimal. But when I got this job and really began to understand how the work of the council touches people’s lives, I decided that it was right that I share my experiences.”
Tom’s mother had been diagnosed as bipolar as a teenager and, while she enjoyed periods of good health, she sometimes struggled with the demands of raising two young children. The pressure was compounded by his father’s own battle with alcoholism and depression and when he was just two weeks old Tom and his older brother were placed with foster carers for the first time.
“From that age to being a toddler we went back into care another three times. Neither my brother or I have any memories of that time and our parents never told us about it until we were in our 20s.
“What changed was that our grandma, my mum’s mum, gave up her job and moved into the family home. It meant that even when things were difficult we had someone at home to hold it all together. The thing with mum was she could be fine one day, poorly the next and then the following week she would be back on her feet. It’s the unpredictability of a condition like bipolar which makes it so difficult when children are involved. Our gran brought stability to our family and without it I may well have ended up as one of those children who yo-yos back and forth between home and care.
“We were lucky, but I know there are many other youngsters who don’t have a figure like my gran. In Leeds we have worked really hard to reduce the number of children in care, while nationally the figure is on the rise. We have encouraged what’s known as kinship carers, supporting relatives like my gran, to help out and recognising where possible that it’s better to keep parents and siblings together. Of course it’s not appropriate in every situation and when there is a risk of violence or abuse it is right and proper that children are removed from immediate danger.”
His own experiences have meant that Tom believes passionately not only in raising awareness of mental health, but also dispelling some of the myths and misconceptions surrounding the issues.
“Often people who have a condition like bipolar tend to be defined by it,” he says. “My mum was really creative. In her younger days she had been good at drama, she loved painting and she could play the piano really well. What’s sad about mental illness is that it often stifles people’s creativity and it means they never get a chance to fulfil their talents.
“It also made her very self-conscious and that prevented her from doing certain things. When my brother and I were little she sometimes didn’t want to go out of the house and she felt the pressure of big events like Christmas and birthdays. It meant that we didn’t have big parties, but we knew that we were loved and that was the most important thing.”
Tom’s dad, who was a squadron leader in the RAF before becoming a teacher, had been married before and he traces his problems back to the death of his three-year-old daughter to his first wife.
“She contracted meningitis and I have no doubt that’s where the root of his issues lay. He had depression at times and I think he drank to forget, but it all came to a head when he was in his 40s.
“He had a breakdown and while he was in hospital he made the decision that he wasn’t going to drink again. He’d tried to stop before, but this time he did it. The alcoholism didn’t go away, he lived with every day for the rest of his life, but we were all incredibly proud that he found the strength to never have another drink.
“Instead he swapped his addiction to alcohol for an addiction to local history and before he died he completed a history on our home town of Northallerton.”
Tom remembers his father with great fondness, but admits that watching his struggles with alcohol has inevitably had an impact. “I do drink, but I think if you asked any of my friends they would say that they had never seen me drunk. I very deliberately know when to stop. My addiction if I have one is to football. My dad fostered in me a lifelong attachment to Middlesbrough which in its own way is a whole world of pain.”
Tom’s dad died 13 years ago and his mum is now living in a care home and suffers from various health problems which are a result of the treatment she has undergone.
“Mum has always been on a daily cocktail of tablets and the long-term side effects of taking those drugs is another thing people don’t talk about it. The lithium which was routinely prescribed as a base drug has weakened mum’s bones.
“Thankfully treatments have changed and so, I think, have attitudes towards mental health issues. People are a little less fearful, but there is still a way to go and that’s why when I was approached by the Leeds Community Foundation to come on board with the campaign I immediately said yes.
“I want to show that people with mental health problems aren’t failures. In many ways my mum and dad were heroes. They dealt with the effects of bipolar and alcohol problems while making our home a loving family environment.
“If anything, it brought us closer together. My brother and I take it in turns to visit mum every day and her unconditional love has made us both who we are today.”
The foundation’s year-long focus on mental health will begin with a call to action encouraging businesses to be more supportive of employees with conditions like depression and bipolar.
“My brother and I took part in a research project about the impact of growing up with a parent who has a mental illness,” says Tom, who will be one of the guest speakers at today’s Leeds Leads: Healthy Minds for a Thriving City event, alongside former New Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell and former footballer Clarke Carlisle, whose problems with depression have been well documented. “They said it often leads you to having a stressful job because you learn coping strategies from an early age. I suspect that’s true, but there is a downside.
“I do struggle to live in the moment. In some ways that’s good because it means you are never complacent and you are always driving forward, but it also means that you don’t enjoy the good times as much as perhaps you should. It’s something I’m working on.”