ACT Party candidate Carmel Claridge has bravely spoken about her past with alcoholism. Photo: Supplied

As a new ACT Party candidate shares her struggle with alcoholism, Laura Walters asks whether politicians are finally opening up about their demons

Two years ago, I wrote an article about mental health and addiction in politics – more specifically, the apparent lack of politicians with mental health and addiction issues.

Te Ara Oranga – the national mental health and addictions inquiry found 50-80 percent of Kiwis experience mental distress or addiction challenges at some point in their lifetime.

Given the prevalence of mental health in the general population, and the additional pressures and responsibilities placed on politicians, we know our political leaders and candidates will suffer from these same issues.

What surprised me was that more politicians weren’t known to have mental health or addiction issues.

Where’s politics’ John Kirwan?, I asked.

In 2018, I could find just one sitting MP who was happy to talk about their experience with mental health: Chlöe Swarbrick. Former MP Holly Walker had previously spoken about her mental health challenges.

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

“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,” Swarbrick said at the time.

“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 still live in a world where “explaining is losing”.

One politician I approached to share their experience even threatened a defamation lawsuit if I suggested they had ever suffered from mental distress.

In 2018, the stigma remained strong. And the fear of appearing weak, or giving political opposition ammunition, won out over the need to show our politicians and political candidates are truly representative of society.

But things are changing.

When Newsroom approached the ACT top 15 candidates – many of who are largely unknown – for a series on the party’s new faces, we asked what they had disclosed to the party during the selection process; was there anything they wanted to get off their chest now, rather than later?

Two disclosed drink-driving charges.

Tauranga candidate Cameron Luxton, who is number 15 on the party’s list, said he received two youth limit drink-driving charges as a teenager, “which I regret and have learnt from”.

Tāmaki candidate, and number 13 on the list, Carmel Claridge also said she had a historical excess breath alcohol charge.

“Experiencing recovery and having to rebuild a life at the age of 42 taught me patience, resilience, and humility,”

She was convicted, fined and lost her licence as a result.

“This was at a time in my life when abuse of alcohol had left me completely broken, with nothing of value left in my life,” Claridge said.

The lawyer, former small business owner, local politician, and founder of the Auckland Ratepayers Alliance said she got sober through a recovery programme. That was 13 years ago.

“Experiencing recovery and having to rebuild a life at the age of 42 taught me patience, resilience, and humility,” she said.

“I am grateful every day I got a second chance at life, and the opportunity to contribute in a positive way to society.”

Claridge said the experience made her “keenly aware that dwelling in victimhood and blaming others, or the system, for one’s life circumstances is futile and self-defeating”. 

Many people needed a hand-up at times in their lives, which was OK, she said.

“But ultimately the individual can only reach their true potential by embracing personal responsibility.”

Comments like this make ACT an obvious choice for Claridge. But she said there was no “eureka moment” that led her to the party.

“Being involved in politics has evolved through my work in the community rather than any burning ambition to be part of the buzz in the Beehive…

“Politics is like anything else – you can sit on the sidelines moaning and griping, or you can roll up your sleeves and get stuck in to change things for the better. I’ve rolled up my sleeves.”

Claridge is walking the talk on multiple fronts.

The newbie, who is actually unlikely to make it into Parliament after Saturday’s election (but not by much), has joined a growing group of politicians now talking about their mental health and addiction demons – something the country’s leaders have long encouraged regular citizens to do.

“For me it had become a daily wrestle of my mind and it took an astounding amount of mental energy to get through each day.”

As well as Swarbrick, and Walker before her, Todd Muller recently spoke about his challenges and reasons for stepping down as National Party leader.

Last month, the Bay of Plenty MP spoke about the issues that led to his resignation, and encouraged others to “share the pain”.

On Facebook, Muller said “mental health challenges had always been other people’s issues”.

“Being an MP introduced me to some of the challenging journeys that many in our community live, but I was fine, I never had an issue previously even when life and jobs had thrown me curveballs”.

But after becoming party leader, Muller started to experience panic attacks.

They started with a prickling pain in his head and developed into waves of anxiety. Muller said he struggled to sleep, and the panic attacks increased in frequency.

“For me it had become a daily wrestle of my mind and it took an astounding amount of mental energy to get through each day.”

His mental ill health also impacted his family, and the Muller decided to step down from the role, which was when current leader Judith Collins took over.

Muller’s candidness in sharing his story has been widely praised, and is part of a shift in Parliament.

He Ara Oranga has exposed the pervasiveness of mental health and addictions issues, in New Zealand.

And the 2019 Francis Review into bullying and harassment in Parliament has made the country acutely aware of the often difficult work environment politicians face, and the vulnerability that brings.

Judith Collins referenced this during a recent leaders’ debate, saying Matt Doocey – a former mental health worker and National’s current mental health spokesperson – had a lot of work to do inside and outside Parliament. Doocey is also one of the members of Parliament’s new cross-party mental health working group, which aims to reduce stigma, and work towards creating bipartisan mental health policy.

This recognition of how mental health and addictions impact politicians can only be a good thing. It further breaks down the stigma and creates role models for New Zealanders battling their own demons.

But as the country becomes more accepting and understanding of mental health and addictions there is the risk politicians will co-opt these issues as political management tools, as we’ve seen in recent months – something that would be a step backwards, when we’re just starting to move forwards.

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