MPs and mental health

Mental health in Parliament was raised an an issue recently when the leaker of Simon Bridges expenses claimed to be at risk if the inquiry continued, but it is not a new issue.

Newsroom recounts in Where is politics’ John Kirwan?

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.

Not good when mental health is used as a political weapon. Smith was suggested by some as a potential leaker simply due to his past publicly acknowledged stress.

Being an MP is inherently stressful. It involves big responsibilities, long hours, a lot of travel, and the ever hovering chance of unflattering and exposing media attention.

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.

First term Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick has proven to be thoughtful, responsible and willing to address issues that other MPs avoid, without being an attention seeker. She earns credit.

And she has been prepared to talk openly about mental health issues.

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.

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.”

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.”

Being open and talking about mental health is risky for an MP, but it will help normalise something that virtually all of us have to contend with to varying degrees.

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.

MPs should be modelling a range of behaviours and set an example to the rest of the country. This will be radical for some old school attrition orientated politicians, but with a new type of MP gradually taking over this can improve.

6 Comments

  1. lurcher1948

     /  September 4, 2018

    So which stressed National MP stabbed the tempory Simon Bridges in the back,was it……

  2. Blazer

     /  September 4, 2018

    Key said the Greens were ‘barking mad’….there’s a big problem to be addressed ..right…there,right there…

  3. robertguyton

     /  September 4, 2018

    Has Simon run that errant Nat leaker to ground yet? Flushed him out? Bailed him up?

    • Gezza

       /  September 4, 2018

      Might already be well under in their concrete gumboots below the dam up at Zealandia for all we know.

      • robertguyton

         /  September 4, 2018

        That’s it! And no sightings of Paula for sometime now…

        • artcroft

           /  September 4, 2018

          Apparently the leaker was a Labour staffer told to get some dirt on Bridges or face the bash.