Dennis Robertson

22nd March 2013 at 00:00
The MSP for Aberdeenshire West discusses the death of his daughter, Caroline, after his family's battle with her anorexia, his education at the Royal Blind School and his hopes for a more individualised approach to teaching young people with visual impairments. Interview by Julia Belgutay Photography by James Glossop

What has been your greatest achievement as an MSP?

The one that gave me most pleasure was winning the Donald Dewar Debater of the Year (2012). It was very unexpected. To be a novice and have that award was fantastic. The reason behind it was that I gave a members' debate speech on eating disorders and the death of my daughter, so it was very emotional.

What is the biggest misconception about anorexia?

It is not really an eating disorder. It is a mental illness, and it is about control. People think it is a fad teenagers tend to go through, and that includes the medical profession.

What role do the media play in promoting body images to young people?

They continue to put in photographs of the perfect body image that young people then strive for. When you look at society, very few people are that body-beautiful image that is portrayed. Is it really the body beautiful? Because it is not natural. No one is ever absolutely perfect.

What should the media do?

It would be nice if they started showing real images. One of the concerns I have is not just the media portrayal, but some of the government initiatives on tackling things like obesity. When you are doing that, you have got to remember that you could be triggering a message and people then go to the other end of the scale.

Are teachers well enough informed?

Not at all. However, there is a pilot project about to take place in Aberdeenshire.

Was your daughter's school able to help, and were they aware of the extent of the problem?

When it became evident that Caroline had anorexia, yes. One guidance teacher in particular was extremely supportive. Caroline attained A grades in everything she did - she was just such a high achiever, but school gave her all the assistance and support she needed. I sometimes wonder, would we have had the same reaction from the school if Caroline hadn't been a high achiever? I hope we would, but I'm not entirely convinced.

How well supported did you as a family feel by health professionals?

In the initial stages, the focus was on my daughter. We did most of our own research. That's a bad thing. We were given very little in terms of knowledge, but a locum consultant working in Aberdeen at the time said: "Your daughter has a significant mental illness. It is going to be torturous for you as a family. You will find there will be times where you want to just throw the towel in." The advice she gave us was: "Remember you have a life too. Remember you have another daughter. You can't fixate all time and effort into the anorexia, because it will destroy you." And she was absolutely right.

And later on?

When Caroline was getting much more intensive psychiatric treatment, we became more involved. However, that could easily have led to exclusion if Caroline had said, "I don't want you there." As soon as she turned 16, it became her prerogative. My big argument - and I will continue to focus on this until we can get some change - is did she actually have the capacity to make that decision? I am not questioning the right of the individual; I am questioning whether the power of the anorexia is so great that it drives and controls. I knew at any given time when she was Caroline, my daughter, and when she was Caroline, the anorexic.

How well informed were you to start with?

We didn't understand fully at the time that it was about control and was a significant and severe mental illness. And when you go into various websites, the shocking thing is that most of the initial hits you get are pro-anorexic sites, how to become the best possible anorexic. We were astounded. I felt physically ill, because my daughter was constantly on the web, and I kept thinking she is probably looking at these things; she is probably learning all about how to do this.

As someone who went to the Royal Blind School, how do you feel about the assumption that all children should be included in mainstream education?

I support it 100 per cent. But I always believed that there is maybe a stage later on, especially for people with sensory losses, where you need life skills - and you can't really get that within the mainstream. That's when I would support going somewhere like the Royal Blind School, where they would get not just that additional support to get through maybe Highers and Advanced Highers, but would learn life skills being away from home.

If you could do one thing to improve education for blind and partially sighted children, what would it be?

Individualising, trying to establish who that young person is, what their aspirations are, what support they need to attain goals and try to provide it. Maybe that's utopia, but why not? If you set that bar high, the journey will be quite an exciting one.

What would you like to have achieved when your time as an MSP comes to an end?

Do I want to go down in history? I suppose I'm already in there by being the first blind MSP and introducing the first guide dog to the Scottish Parliament. Mr Q will probably end up with a plaque. I sincerely hope that I achieve something within the eating disorder world. If I can do that, I will be very pleased with myself.


Born: Aberdeen, 1956

Education: Beechwood Primary, Aberdeen; Royal Blind School, Edinburgh

Career: Semi-skilled engineer, Chicago Pneumatic Tools; social work assistant, Strathclyde Regional Council; Service development coordinator for Scotland and Northern Ireland, Guide Dogs; SNP MSP for Aberdeenshire West since 2011.

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