Tax on social media giants can help fix their mess - Alex Cole-Hamilton

Of all the announcements to come out of our upbeat Scottish Liberal Democrat conference in Hamilton this weekend, the one that enjoyed most cut through was one that I had not intended to make.

In an interview with a newspaper, I answered a direct question honestly and revealed that I’ve been talking to a therapist for the last couple of years, to help me with my mental health.

As I’ve said in my reply to the many, very welcome messages I received about this, particularly from political opponents, I’m in a really good place and doing well. But that wasn’t always true. At one point, a few months into my time as leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, I had to go to the GP for a range of blood tests. These were to rule out more sinister explanations for the grinding abdominal pains I’d been having. When these came back clear, my doctor chalked my symptoms up to acute stress.

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It was at this point my party stepped in and engaged a resilience therapist for me. I’m very grateful to them. As a muscle bound, veteran para with two tours of Afghanistan under his belt, a more unlikely therapist you would be hard to find, but we clicked straight away and he helped me sort myself out. I now see our monthly sessions as an act of self-care and mental hygiene.

I’m lucky to have that support. Indeed, I have written many times about the waiting times for both adults and young people seeking access to mental health services. In some cases people are waiting two years and more. That time lag can see a problem lurch from bad to worse, sometimes with devastating consequences.

The need to ensure rapid access to health and social care, and to mental health support in particular, was a major theme of not just my address to conference but of the whole weekend.

My colleague Ed Davey announced plans to create a new minimum wage for care workers, £2 higher than the national minimum wage, to tackle the chronic staff shortages in social care that are leaving people stuck in hospital when they should be looked after at home or in a care home. It’s contributing to record-breaking waits in A&E and dangerous ambulance delays.

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Our Highland candidate Angus MacDonald led a debate on rural healthcare and the difficulties faced by mothers forced to travel more than a hundred miles to give birth.

And I spoke about our plans to triple the Digital Services Tax on social media giants to better fund mental health services, a policy that recognises that toxic social media is a huge cause of mental ill health in this country.

Too often social media ecosystems are overpopulated by malevolent trolls or posts and adverts designed to make us feel bad about our body image or our lifestyle just to sell a certain kind of product.

I know several people who would be first rate parliamentarians who have actively decided not to run for parliament because they don’t want to subject themselves or their families to online abuse. A visiting politician from our sister party Alliance in Northern Ireland told our conference this weekend that she will be stepping down at the next Stormont Assembly elections because she’s had enough of the online abuse.

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Having the support of my party and a professional made a world of a difference for me. By making social media giants pay to help clean up the mess they’ve created we can ensure that everyone has access to help when they need it. That’s how Liberal Democrats would create a properly funded, world-beating mental health service for Scotland.

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