It's time to tackle the mental health crisis in politics

31 Jul 2019

You’d be forgiven for believing, in the face of countless glossy mental health photo-ops, that mental health is an openly talked about and supported part of political life. As Jared O’Mara, former Labour, now independent MP, is set to depart Parliament after a very public struggle with his mental health, it's time to take those rose-tinted glasses off.


Mental health issues are not an excuse for some of the issues O’Mara is rightly facing scrutiny over. Sexual harassment, bigotry and the reckless abandonment of his constituents during votes on some of the biggest issues facing this country cannot be excused by his health. All of these are reasons I’ll be glad to see him leave Parliament, to be replaced by a far more liberal and committed Member of Parliament for Sheffield Hallam.


The fact that O’Mara is not the best of people, never mind of MPs, is not, however, an excuse for how he has been treated regarding his mental health. It does not excuse the failings of those who were responsible for supporting and protecting his well being in this public-facing role. 


Behind those aforementioned photo-ops and World Mental Health Day messages is a cynical reality at odds with the public image of politics. Too many people working in politics - as staff, campaigners, candidates and representatives - suffer under the weight of unaddressed and unsupported mental health issues. In a demanding working environment, where the stakes are high and perceived loyalty is measured in leaflet rounds and never being seen to complain or disagree with increasingly rigid party lines, this was always a powder keg destined to blow.


When discussing the Jared O’Mara issue with a colleague, they suggested that he should have been more honest and up-front about his health at the point of selection as a candidate. 


In an ideal world, that would be the right thing to do. In an ideal world, he would have been given the support he needed to cope with the demands of the role, reasonable adjustments to help him to serve his constituents to the best of his ability, and the support network he needed to address the mental health issues he was facing at the time. 


But, as someone who has seen what happens to people who do just that, in a world far from ideal, I don’t blame him for not being upfront about it in the slightest. Far from the support he should have received, he would have had decisions about his health and ability made for him by people with no grasp on his reality. He wouldn’t have made it to the hustings.


When it is seen as entirely acceptable for a former communications team to brutally air the private mental health issues faced by a Member of Parliament on Twitter (hilarious, even) then of course people aren’t going to be open about their mental health. 


Everyone has a mental health - good, bad, and everything in between. Approximately one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. In England, one in six people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. 


These aren’t statistics political parties won't be aware of - they’ve written countless fluff press releases filled with them. If one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, then so will one in four MPs. So will one in four councillors, one in four candidates, campaigners, members of staff and party members. 


To tackle the mental health crisis in politics, we need a radical culture shift. We need to empower people to make their own informed choices about their mental health and political careers, without making decisions about their future for them. Support must become the go-to response, not limitation. 


Above all else, we must ensure that people are able to be honest about when they are struggling, without judgement.


If we can’t make those changes then we only have ourselves to blame for the next Jared O’Mara-style tragedy, and countless ones that will follow.



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