By Dr Chris Edmond
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and as an occupational health doctor a large part of my work focuses on improving mental health in the workplace.
In my clinical practice, I assess employees from company chief executives to the most junior trainee and everyone in between. I carry out work in the public sector, charities and private businesses in all areas of the economy. And believe me that anyone, at any level, in any business, can have issues with their mental health.
However, one area that is rarely spoken of is mental health in politics. As this week marks the last sitting of the current States Assembly, and the nomination period for candidates standing for the next Assembly, I feel the time is right to highlight the issue.
Being a politician is a unique role – one where you are essentially self-employed and self-directing, yet at the same time answerable to thousands of strangers.
You have probably seen in this newspaper discussions on pay for Assembly Members, and also initiatives to improve the diversity and representation of our States. But how often do we hear about the mental wellbeing of our representatives? And should we care?
The British philosopher and MP John Stuart Mill said in 1859, ‘what we require in a democratic society is enlightened individuals who will be mature and responsible because they reflect upon the issues which face them’. So surely we have a responsibility to ensure the circumstances that allow for such mature and responsible reflection?
However, when a UK parliamentary panel looked into the issue of mental health and long working-hours in politics, it described a trail of ‘broken health, ruined marriages and exhausted irrationality’. Recent figures found approximately two times the rate of depression among UK politicians than the general population.
I’m not sure the topic has ever been researched in Jersey, yet we know that better mental health leads to better decision-making, confidence in problem solving, better communication and engagement with others.
Unlike an employee, as a politician or candidate no one has a statutory duty of care for your wellbeing. The electorate have very high expectations of you, yet are often distrustful. You may face online abuse, and sadly also the potential for physical violence as we saw in the Capitol riots in the US in 2021, and in the UK with the murders of Jo Cox MP and David Amess MP.
Assembly Members are expected to be kind and compassionate, yet work in a system that promotes competition and deal-making. There can be dissonance between personal views and those required to progress your career. There is always a time-pressure and the need to look forward to the next election cycle, with limited time to enact change.
And politicians, despite having relatively ordinary backgrounds, face casework that is emotionally challenging even for the health professionals or social workers who are trained and supported in managing such situations.
Reading the recent Public Accounts Committee review on the management of the pandemic, I noted that while the impact on staff wellbeing was rightly highlighted there was no mention of the impact on the wellbeing of States Members who were often working just as hard and making huge decisions under enormous pressure.
We have to remember that our politicians are people first, just like you and me. They should be congratulated for the bravery it takes to put themselves forward to represent us. It’s our job as the electorate to select the right people for the job, and we should want an Assembly that represents us all. Episodes of poor mental health should absolutely not be a barrier to politics but the right support needs to be in place.
In 1998, Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik was praised for being open and honest when he temporarily stood down from his duties, due to depression, before successfully returning to his role.
In 2012 Kevan Jones MP stood up in the UK House of Commons and discussed his own mental-health challenges, encouraging others to do the same. This led to the development of an in-house counselling service for MPs and their staff. There is further research into the mental health of politicians continuing around the world, and I would like to see Jersey participate in the same.
I believe in open, compassionate and collaborative politics and leadership. And we achieve that through open, compassionate and collaborative discussion. So as we move towards the hustings and the election, while you might rightly feel passionate about the issues discussed, please remember that the candidates sitting in front of you are people too. And that’s a good thing.
And to all those standing for election can I say thank you, and good luck.
Dr Edmond is the founder and medical director of WorkHealth (CI) Ltd, a dedicated Jersey-based occupational health provider. He is also a director at Jersey Sport and adviser to the Jersey Community Foundation. He writes in a personal capacity.