Why politicians’ health is important and what they can do to protect it

Jun 26, 2024 | News

To solve the most pressing issues of our day, we need leaders who are at the top of their game. What can be done when so many politicians report poor mental health?

Everyone is logged in. Quick introduction, then the author of the report will present. Everything is going smoothly. Then, in the middle of the flow, yikes! ‘Esc.’ ‘Esc.’, explicit porn flashes across your screen.

Rebekah is not easily shocked. After researching the realities of serving as a politician around the world for months, she had heard it all. The social media abuse, online trollings, long hours, demanding travel, hostile press.

It’s no wonder that parliamentarians today feel fragile. According to Apolitical Foundation ‘s 94-page report, Ison, who helped write it, 41% of people in the political world rate their mental health ‘low’. The ‘high quotient’ is a mere 4%.

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Despite her intellectual understanding of the world of politics, she was hacked during a live online event. It was the first taste of what being an insider must be like in today’s increasingly polarised, abuse-filled world.

“It was a horrible, frustrating experience but it was also a kind of immersion in the topic we were discussing,” she says.

Politicians are no different from other career choices in that they face a certain amount of stress: the need to win elections, make tough decisions, and please constituents. Add to that the pressures of social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and the rise in the number of civility breakdowns across the aisle, and the stress level is quickly becoming unbearable.

Experts say that the health of democracy depends in part on the mental and psychological wellbeing of our representatives. Image: Ming Jun Tan

Alastair Campbell, former Labour spin doctor and survivor himself of a stress-related breakdown, told listeners of his hit podcast The Rest is Politics that “if we’re not careful the life of a political will become so relentlessly negativistic that nobody in their right minds will want to be a politicians.” It’s dangerous .”

Dangerous, why? Why? Some (but not all) jump just before they crash. Jacinda Ardern, the New Zealander, is one of them. She was the youngest female head of state in the world when she took office at 37 years old. She resigned from her position early due to exhaustion. Her comment at the time was telling. “I know what this position requires …”

Mhairi black is the same. Mhairi Black was the youngest MP appointed since 1832 when she was sworn in as the MP for Paisley & Renfrewshire South. described‘s weekly travel to London and the constant schedule changes as “hellish”. Rory Stewart , a former Tory minister, recently said that felt briefly suicidal following a highly-publicised gaffe while an MP.

If we don’t take care, the perception of a politician will become so negative that no one in their right mind would want to be one.

As the Mere Mortals Report makes abundantly clear: mental illness also threatens democracy. Either elected officials struggle to perform their duties as well as they could, or, equally alarming, good candidates choose to give politics a broad berth.

Matthew Flinders, along with other contributors, wrote in Governing under pressure? The Mental Wellbeing of Politicians Report in 2018.

Fortunately, there are still some dedicated public servants who throw their hat into the ring. At least, the Apolitical Foundation research cohort of about 100 politicians found that most are “generally resilient”, “high functioning”, thus getting the job done, albeit “against the odds”.

Mhairi described her time as an MP in recent times as ‘hellish.’ Image: David Woolfall via Wikimedia Commons

Do today’s aspirants to office just have to’suck up’ and grow a thick skin? Could it be possible to become a legislator without sacrificing your mental health? As there are more than 50 elections in the world this year, thousands of politicians and newly elected legislators have these questions on their minds.

Help is at hand. It’s not a lot, but there is some. Mere Mortals is a good example of peer-topeer support, mentoring, life coaching, and therapy.

Kimberly MacArthur is the chief operating officer of the Apolitical Foundation. She says that talking to other politicians can be particularly effective because they have empathy and can provide “realistic, pragmatic insights.”

The health of our democracy may depend, in part, on the mental and psychological well-being of those we elect to take decisions and represent us.

However, support within parliaments and parties is often patchier. The UK is a rare example of good practices, with the Mindfulness All-Party Parliamentary Group at Westminster offering mindfulness training to serving politicians and staff.

Tessa Watt who is currently running the training advises participants to “take a moment or two” and “re-center”. She notes that parliamentarians can become “overwhelmed” and lose sight of the “reason they entered politics”.

But the responsibility for protecting the mental health of parliamentarians shouldn’t be solely on their shoulders. We, as the wider body of politics, have a part to play. Remember that politicians are just like us: they’re mums, dads, sons and friends, or uncles.

She observes that “there’s often the perception that these people don’t really exist and have some sort of armour to protect them from public abuse.” “If we humanise them hopefully that will curb a lot of this treatment .”

The authors of the Mere Mortals Report say that journalists and publishers should approach their political reporting with a constructive and solution-oriented lens. Image: Ross Sneddon

It’s a good thought. Will it stop the angry No.54 man from sending an offensive email to his councillor? It might persuade a grateful constituent to sit and write a thank-you letter? Here’s hoping.

The media also has a part to play. The authors of the Mere Mortals Report recommend that journalists and editors approach political reporting and comment from a constructive, solutions-oriented lens. It reads: “While holding politicians accountable must remain a part a free press,” it is important that politicians be able to change, do their jobs, and live without fear of themselves or their families. The Solutions Journalism Network, and the Constructive Journalism institute are recommended as good places to begin for ideas on improving reporting.

Olson, for her part is certain that the mental health of politicians is a “systemic issue” which directly affects our level of political enjoyment. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Oh, go do some yoga’,” she says. Making politics more bearable is a civic duty that we all have – especially disruptive hackers.

From surviving to thriving

We asked experts around the globe: What is one piece of advice you would give to a newly elected politician in order to protect their mental health?

Set boundaries

“Be very clear to yourself and your diary manager about what you are saying ‘no’ too.” – Matthew Salik Head of programmes at Commonwealth Parliamentary Association

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Open up

“If someone is going through a tough time, they need to have someone they can trust.” – Jonathan Andrew. Public affairs manager at Rethink Mental illness

Image: Christina Morillo

Stay grounded

“Snap from doom-narratives and take a walk to play, help, learn, and, most importantly, transcend the ego.” Dr Victoria Hasson is the founder of The Silent MP a platform which promotes a more humanised and authentic political culture

Image of Venus Major

Flag Expectations

“Make sure your family and friends are aware of what you will be doing if you win.” Dr Ashley Weinberg Senior lecturer in psychology, Salford University

Image: Ben Collins

Allies are important

“Prioritise forming alliances between colleagues from different parties in order to exchange support during difficult times.” – Jana Degrott, elected official and social innovator as co-founders of We Belong Europe

Image of Chris Liverani

Clock off

“Take time to disconnect, smell roses, and speak about ‘normal things’ with those you love.” – Charishma Kalyanda member for Liverpool, New South Wales government

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Main image: Deagreez / composite

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