Politicians and Mental Health
Jane Roberts, author of Losing Political Office, discusses the correlations between politicians and mental health.
What have politicians got to do with mental health, you might well ask? Well, quite apart from setting policy that can have a profound effect on all our mental health, they are as prone to the ups and downs of mental health as the rest of us. Indeed, a number of Westminster MPs courageously admitted to their own struggles with mental ill-health in the House of Commons 2012, including Charles Walker, an MP with obsessive-compulsive disorder who famously described himself as “a practising fruitcake.”
But politicians may be even more vulnerable to emotional swings and mental ill-health than others. Dr. Ashley Weinberg’s work on Westminster MPs in the last decade has demonstrated the intense pressure that MPs have to withstand in their ordinary working lives while they are in office, and its psychological ill effects on many of them. My research on politicians leaving office, documented in a book recently published by Palgrave Macmillan (Losing Political Office, 2017), both supports the concerns highlighted by Weinberg of the strains of holding office and, in ground-breaking work, reveals the emotional turmoil – and for some, depression - that many politicians experience when they leave office.
As a psychiatrist and former council leader myself, I was curious to know more about politicians leaving office. The academic literature had relatively little to say. Why was this? What was the experience if the transition from political office? What happened to those politicians who were no longer in the public eye? What was the impact on their partners and families? Were there any wider implications?
In my research, I conducted in-depth interviews with former Westminster MPs and English council leaders, those who had stood down and those who had been defeated – and in many cases, their partners. Many of the conversations went on for far longer than had been initially suggested—such was the distress that was being recalled.
Most former MPs and council leaders – whether they had chosen to go or not – described a sense of loss at having left political office and for many it was described graphically in terms of grief. One reflected that it was, “Like a bereavement – and it was - but there was no funeral.”
In adjusting to a very different life, most had experienced at the very least a sense of dislocation: how to structure the vast amount of time that had suddenly opened up; coming to terms with no longer mattering to others in the same way; finding a new narrative about who they were and what they did, and a number had struggled hard to find employment. Evolving a new identity over time was not easy. In addition, many of those who had been defeated described a sense of public humiliation, personal failure, and crushing lack of confidence – that persisted for some and was still evident at the time of the interview, two years later. A number described clear features of depression in one case affecting the spouse rather than the politician such had been the wider impact of the defeat on the family, including severe financial stress.
One council leader talked of getting down and depressed after an unexpected defeat and for “One really, really bad month, I locked myself away for a week. I didn’t go out. I just didn’t go out, I locked myself away.”
Another who had stood down, thinking it was the right time to go but, it was “Quite a rational way of looking at things but the actual experience of doing it was a whole different matter … a bleak time …[I] became quite depressed.”
And of course, politicians often do grieve for their loss of office. It is grief. Freud recognised a century ago that the loss of anything that is very important to us – a person, an object or an idea – is of enormous significance and needs to be worked through. For most, this working through takes place through mourning for that which has been lost. For some, melancholia takes hold instead, or as we now call it, depression. Hardly surprising then that politicians who have had so much, both personally and professionally, invested in their position, who have worked so hard with some personal sacrifice, should feel so keenly the loss of a cherished role.
Despite this, few of the former politicians, especially if defeated, had received any meaningful communication from their political party. Why on earth not? It was as if they had dropped from sight and mind. Many felt deeply hurt at the lack of acknowledgement from the political party that they had served so loyally for so long. Partners expressed anger about this most forcibly and a number of them had left the party in fury. Where there had been acknowledgement, and especially some sort of rite of passage – “a funeral” - it was deeply appreciated and long remembered.
Throughout, there were powerful, often moving, human stories: hurt, humiliation, betrayal, failure, shame, affecting not just the individuals leaving office but their partners and families. Lives might have “collapsed.” And not just from those who had been defeated. Such sentiments mostly had been kept very private. For some, this conversation had been the only opportunity to talk about what had happened. For a few, it was almost as though they were “lepers”, with a sense of contagion about them: one commented with some sadness, “Ex-MPs are like rotting fish. Failed politicians are the worst of the worst.”
On the other hand, there was a small number of MPs who had stood down who had been hugely relieved to leave office, wanting a more fulfilling professional and personal life elsewhere. The intensity of media scrutiny, the toll on family life, increasing pressures of the role (tempered by large amounts of alcohol for some), and doubts about the changing role of an MP were factors that all played a part in the decision to go. Their experience raises sharp questions about the conditions into which we elect MPs now and what defences may be necessary to withstand the demands of office – all the more so since the shocking murder of a Westminster MP in the run up to the UK referendum on leaving the European Union in 2016.
Politicians are elected to represent us. We have a relationship with them. We can ill-afford not to think about either the conditions in which they serve us in office, or the manner in which we summarily dismiss them from that same office. After all, it might be you or me.
Dame Jane Roberts is a Research Fellow in Public Leadership at The Open University Business School, UK. A medical doctor since 1980, she practised as an NHS Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist until the end of 2016 and she has experience of healthcare management. She was Leader of the London Borough of Camden from 2000 to 2005. She chaired the Councillors Commission for the Department of Communities and Local Government (2007 to 2009) and amongst other roles, she chairs the think tank New Local Government Network. She also was joint editor of The Politics of Attachment (with S. Kraemer).
NB: All opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Palgrave Macmillan.