At a time when politicians are focusing on the country’s mental health, Laura Walters talks to people who believe stigma continues to prevent MPs from sharing their own experiences.

The topic of mental health has been highly politicised in recent years, and is currently the subject of an inquiry, but the country’s decision-makers still face immense stigma from the public, the media and each other when it comes to their own mental health.

Last year, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke about her anxiety in media interviews, and some members of the public cited this as an argument against her taking on the role of prime minister.

Earlier this month, National Party MP Nick Smith was yet again the target of personal attacks implying he had mental health issues, with Civil Defence Minister Kris Faafoi referring to Smith’s “medication” in an interjection in the House.

Smith took stress leave in 2004 but says he has never experienced mental health issues or taken medication. Regardless, politicians – including now Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard – have used the subject of mental health as a way to personally attack Smith in the House over a number of years.

And the recent Simon Bridges expenses leak took an unexpected turn when the person claiming to be the leaker, and a National MP, said they had severe mental health issues. Mallard called off the independent investigation into the leak, citing concerns for the person’s mental health. But National has forged ahead with its own hunt for the leaker.

Only a handful of politicians have spoken openly about their mental health, including Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick and former Green MP Holly Walker, but it’s a small group. And it’s not surprising given the type of reaction, and questions, which follow these disclosures.

Politicians need to ‘take off the cloak of impenetrability’

Swarbrick has talked about living with depression and anxiety but says sharing her story wasn’t easy.

“It’s scary. Being honest about any facet of yourself, that isn’t necessarily socially acceptable – or where there isn’t a defined pathway in terms of how you declare, or how people react – it’s not a comfortable thing, so you take a risk.

“You always take a risk by being open, transparent, and vulnerable.”

Doing something that isn’t anticipated, or isn’t part of the norm, requires explanation, but politicians live in a world where the common refrain is “explaining is losing”, she says.

Swarbrick doesn’t believe MPs should have to put their entire personal life on the table for people to pick apart, “especially when we still have a culture that stigmatises that kind of stuff”. But politicians do have a responsibility to represent themselves with all their flaws. And Swarbrick says her mental health isn’t something she’s ever sought to hide.

But it is incumbent on politicians to not continue fronting with a façade, where people have a disdain for that kind of politics.

“People want genuine engagement, and that looks like taking off the cloak of impenetrability, and having humanity.”

At least one in five politicians will suffer, so where are they?

Swarbrick says the worst environment for disparaging comments are in the House, late at night.

“To be perfectly honest, those issues that are being joked and jested about, actually probably affect a whole bunch of people in these buildings, because there’s such an intensive work environment.”

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson, who has spoken about his experience of living with bipolar disorder, says each year at least one in five New Zealand politicians will experience mental health issues.

About 50 percent of New Zealanders will experience mental health issues at some point in their lives, but recent studies show that figure could be much higher, with 83 percent of the cohort in the Dunedin longtitudinal study experiencing mental health issues by 38.

“One of the most distasteful things about politics, is there is a very strong tendency to play the person, not the issue. And to do that on the basis of mental health, is frankly quite despicable.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have one in five of our politicians, or one in five of our business leaders, or one in five of any of our public figures, stepping forward and acknowledging how that affected them personally,” Robinson says.

“That’s their choice, but the reason that people don’t do that – the reason why I spent years not being open about living with bipolar – is you do get treated badly if you do.”

So while it would be great to have a ‘John Kirwan of politics’ it’s not surprising this hasn’t happened yet, he says.

“One of the most distasteful things about politics, is there is a very strong tendency to play the person, not the issue. And to do that on the basis of mental health, is frankly quite despicable.”

The pressures of politics

Leaders throughout history have struggled with mental health issues, including Winston Churchill, who lived with bipolar disorder.

In the UK, psychologists have suggested monitoring MPs’ mental health.

Dr Ashley Weinberg, senior lecturer in psychology at Salford University, told the Guardian politicians should be regularly screened to test their psychological health and ensure “they are in the best position to make decisions in the national interest”. Decisions like how to spend the country’s money, or whether to send troops to war.

A 2017 study by political science expert Hilde Coffé found New Zealand MPs work long days – an average of 13 hours and 20 minutes – and have the added pressures of travel, and being in the public eye.

Given the prevalence of mental health in the general population, and the additional pressures and responsibilities, it’s surprising more Kiwi politicians aren’t known to have mental health issues, even taking into account the obvious stigma.

Labour party president Nigel Haworth says as long as someone feels able to do the job, mental health issues should not stop them becoming a party candidate.

During the selection process, the party discusses the workload and stress of the job with potential candidates. The conversations are “very frank”.

There are also induction and training camps, to help prepare  prospective MPs for what’s to come.

Stephen Leavy, partner of executive recruitment firm Hobson Leavy, says a similar story plays out in the country’s top boardrooms.

In his 13 years in the recruitment business, he has only seen a small handful of cases where it is known that a top executive has experienced mental health issues.

It’s unlikely this is because top executives don’t experience mental health issues; it’s more likely the stigma has prevented them from talking about it, he says.

As with politicians, top executives are tested for their suitability, to see whether they can deal with the pressure and stress of the job. At chief executive level, this involves psychometric testing.

Who cares for the top dogs?

Labour Party senior whip Ruth Dyson says like many other jobs, aspects of being an MP are stressful. Being away from home three days a week takes the biggest toll.

While some people may get stressed, it’s never got to the point where she’s been alarmed enough to refer them to professionals.

Part of being a whip is having a pastoral care role for your party’s MPs.

“I made about 20 lemon and honey drinks for my colleagues in the last session …. It isn’t a big thing but it shows people are looking out for each other,” Dyson says.

National Party senior whip Barbara Kuriger says her office is like a revolving door.

She spends a lot of time dealing with leave requests, and tries her best to accommodate MPs, and any personal engagements or issues they may have.

While some people may get stressed, it’s never got to the point where she’s been alarmed enough to refer them to professionals.

But Kuriger realises “MPs are people too” and that means they will also experience stress and mental health issues sometimes.

“Going back to my farming background, big staunch farmers have taken a long time to be able to stand up and say: ‘I’ve got an issue’, but now they are.

“And I think, as parliamentarians we talk about mental health a lot … and so I would hope that we’re all of the view that it’s OK to ask for help.”

MPs privileged to have access to services

As well as party whips, all MPs, party staff, and parliamentary staff, as well as their direct families, have access to confidential, professional counselling services.

Where appropriate, employees also have access to broader community and mental health services.

A Parliamentary Service spokeswoman says they take staff wellbeing very seriously, and this includes mental health.

“Manaakitanga underpins our approach to health, safety and wellbeing and encourages us all to treat one another with respect, care and generosity,” she says.

Swarbrick says while the job can be stressful, and there is still stigma around politicians’ mental health, it’s important to also recognise the privileged position of MPs.

Many Kiwis aren’t able to access mental health services in a timely manner, either due to a lack of money, or a lack of services.

In order to improve New Zealand’s mental health situation, systemic changes are needed to make it easier for people to access effective services, but there’s also a need for a societal change, she says.

Robinson says that change could start in the halls of power, and MPs should be modelling non-stigmatising behaviour for the rest of the country.

A lot of attention has been paid to the mental health of our nation during the past couple of years, and following the completion of the inquiry in the coming months, there will be some significant decisions made about the future for mental health.

In order to make the best decisions and lead by example, MPs need to educate themselves, have an open mind, and be prepared to listen, Robinson says.

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