Havering politics turns nasty as council leader is forced to publicly address mental health and criminal record

The leader of Havering Council has been forced to publicly confess to drug-driving six years ago during an unsuccessful suicide attempt.

In a statement on Thursday, Conservative councillor Damian White admitted he had “no recollection” of getting behind the wheel after trying to overdose in 2016 and was found unconscious in his car.

Publicly outing himself for the first time, he explained it was “one of the lowest points” in his life, as he struggled with his sexuality and the bullying he experienced because of it.

Cllr White was forced to issue a statement after being asked if he was a “convicted criminal” by opposition leader Ray Morgon at a full council meeting this week.

In his statement yesterday, he wrote: “There are no excuses for driving under the influence, but it was not my intention of putting other people at risk.

“However, the circumstances are difficult and deeply personal. I never wanted to drive under the influence of drugs and have no recollection of doing so.

“I have always suffered from mental health illness throughout my life. This stems from struggling coming to terms with who and what I am.

“At the time, I was at one of the lowest points in my life, having suffered from harassment and bullying, particularly around my sexuality. I felt that I had no support or anyone that I could turn to, and so, I made the decision that taking my own life was my only option to end my suffering.

“I am gay. I am proud of that, and I am now happy with who I am, but this has not always been the case.”

According to the Crown Prosecution Service, Cllr White was stopped in his car at approximately 2:15am on February 6 and was spoken to while stationary at traffic lights on the Bow Roundabout.

Cllr White explained that “his first memory” after overdosing was “being informed that [he] had been arrested” at A&E.

He pleaded guilty to driving a vehicle while unfit through drugs at Thames Magistrates’ Court and was sentenced to a 12 month driving ban with a £500 fine, £50 victim surcharge and £85 costs.

His conviction was considered legally ‘spent’ once the 12 months had passed.

The conviction was revealed by Cllr Morgon in the council chamber on March 23, during a debate on policing in the borough.

After two attempts to cut him off, Cllr Morgon protested: “I would just make the point, Mr Mayor, that he hasn’t actually answered the allegations I’ve made against him so therefore I will take it that they are perfectly true.

“It would be an absolute disgrace that we have got a leader of the council who is a convicted criminal.”

At the time, Cllr White answered: “It is such a shame that politics in Havering has descended to such a level that we need to start personal attacks against individuals.

“It is a shame and great personal regret that the leader of the opposition feels that this is an appropriate forum for this.”

In his full statement, Cllr White added: “Whilst society has moved forward, suffering from mental health issues is still a taboo subject. People from the LGBTQ+ community are far more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. I am fortunate that I now have people around me that care enough to support me through difficult times.

“Despite what people may think, it is still very hard for someone such as me to be open about their sexuality. I have always strived to keep my life private, and to not speak about the personal challenges that I face. I now know that this is wrong. No one should suffer in silence and be put in a position that they feel their only option is to end their life.

“It is for that reason I am being open about why I was arrested and convicted. It is hard to fully impart how bad the suffering from bullying and harassment has been over the years and the mental suffering that I have experienced.

“Anyone that suffers from mental health issues knows that it will never be cured. It is about managing your condition and being able to seek help and support when you need it.”

He added that his life has “changed significantly” since 2016 and that he is able to manage his own mental health and support others with theirs.

He said: “I am very grateful for the people that have helped me through the darkest days in my life; it is events like that which make you reflect.

“I have resolved never again to suffer in silence, and I hope that by being open about my experiences, I can offer some comfort to others that are suffering alone and unable to see how to move forward.

“Throughout my time as a councillor, I have always strived for equality and respect, regardless of sexuality, race, or background. I am proud to have launched the READI review with the aim of building a more fair and tolerant society.

“I know that there are some people out there that have considered taking their own life and feel that this is their only option. It is not and you are not alone.

“There is always support from organisations such as the Samaritans, who do wonderful work in helping people through difficult times.

“If you are struggling, please call them on 116 123 or email: jo@samaritans.org – as talking things through might just make the difference and save a life.

“Whilst I deeply regret the events that took place, my sincerest hope is we can live in the society in that is kinder, more tolerant, and more supportive of people’s mental health.”

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Josh Mellor

Local Democracy Reporter