(Credit: matthi / Alamy Stock Photo)
The Speaker and others have been at the forefront of a drive to make Parliament a better workplace for those struggling with mental health conditions – but the unique challenges it puts up mean there’s more to be done. Charlotte Tosti reports.
Historically, if you were an MP with a mental health condition, you would likely be trying your best to hide it. Section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983 removed from office any MP with a mental illness detained under the Act. Just over 10 years ago it was still in force.
This final barrier to political office for those with mental health conditions was removed by the then-MP Gavin Barwell’s Private Members’ Bill, the Mental Health (Discrimination) Act 2013. It was during the debates on that bill that two MPs, Charles Walker and Kevan Jones, courageously spoke out about their own mental health conditions.
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, celebrates Walker and Jones as “pathfinders” in taking the first steps towards destigmatising mental health so other MPs could follow. Since then, several MPs, from Steve Baker to Nadia Whittome, have publicly shared their struggles with mental health problems. Yet there is still a long way to go before parity of esteem is reached between mental and physical health in Parliament.
The job of an MP can be extremely rewarding. But public life is demanding, and public expectations of MPs are at an all-time high. Work takes place across most weekends and during unsociable hours. It can take an MP far away from their support networks at home, and it follows them home too. The frequency of online abuse towards MPs is high, and it often speaks louder than praise. All these facets of the job mean that living with a mental health condition and meeting your responsibilities as an MP is incredibly difficult.
Before entering Parliament, Dan Poulter was a practising psychiatrist. In 2016, he co-authored the first-ever study into the psychological well-being of parliamentarians. Its findings were remarkable: MPs are more likely to suffer from mental health problems than the general public, and three out of four MPs suffer from poor mental health.
Poulter became aware that many of his peers in Parliament were running into difficulty with their mental health shortly after he was elected in 2010. “The main problem,” he says, “was that half of MPs surveyed would not discuss their mental health at all. I think there was, and still is, a concern amongst MPs that if they discuss their mental health, the information they share could be used against them.”
Whilst there has been progress in public awareness of mental health since 2016, Poulter believes the stigma around mental health is alive and kicking amongst MPs. He recalls covering for a colleague who took time off when they were in the throes of depression at their constituency surgeries: “There were a fair amount of people at that time who made suggestions that my colleague should stand down, that they shouldn’t be an MP.” Poor understanding about how moderate to severe depression can affect one’s work does little to remove the stigma around mental health.
Charlotte Nichols, Labour MP for Warrington North, took the brave decision to go public about her diagnosis of PTSD in her second year of office. She explains that a part of the reason why she decided to be open about her mental health was to normalise being a politician with a mental health condition: ‘‘The level of strength it takes to do this job if you live with a mental health condition should be recognised; it’s an achievement.”
Nichols was praised for going public by MPs across parties. Many of them revealed they were living with mental health conditions of their own. But the decision to go public was a double-edged sword: “If an MP has a physical problem, everyone wishes them well. If they say they’re struggling with mental health, lots of people ask, ‘why?’”.
Nichols remembers being in hospital, going through social media and reading about people doubting her diagnosis because there were photos of her smiling on visits. “There wasn’t always respect for privacy around my condition. Nobody asks you why you have cancer. But I found people commenting, ‘You haven’t gone to war, why do you have PTSD?’”.
If an MP has a physical problem, everyone wishes them well. If they say they’re struggling with mental health, lots of people ask, ‘why?’
Whilst social attitudes towards mental health can only shift in the long term, Parliament has been more active in recent years in equipping those who work on the estate with resources to help their mental health. The Parliamentary Health & Wellbeing Service (PHWS) is available to elected representatives and staff in Parliament and provides them with specialists in occupational health and wellbeing. Members also have access to free and confidential specialist advice through a mental health helpline and have access to a GP on-site. Still, many Members aren’t properly aware of the support available to them.
Hoyle, who was struck by the findings of Poulter’s report, has made it his mission to put health and wellbeing first in Parliament since becoming Speaker. “You can never stop telling people about the [health and wellbeing] services.” he says, “It’s a village – and we’ve got to look after everyone in the village. We’ve got to be there to back people up to say we also understand how they’re feeling.”
Importantly, the proxy system has been extended to enable MPs to organise proxy voting if they need time off for mental health reasons. Nichols benefitted from proxy voting during her time in hospital, and Poulter agrees that it was a positive step forward in addressing MPs’ mental health. Yet both believe that there is work to be done in risk assessment when it comes to mental health, so that problems can be addressed before they become especially serious.
Poulter observed that several MPs with poor mental health often manifest this through excessive drinking: “those MPs present at the point [at] which things have gone badly wrong. Lindsay Hoyle is very focussed on people’s welfare, but the focus on risk assessment needs to come from the whips and party offices.”
Nichols agrees that earlier intervention is needed to help MPs before problems get serious to mitigate the effects on staff: “When someone goes on leave, it’s their team who are left to pick up the pieces. There’s nothing in place from the party or Parliament to support staff during that period.”
As the Speaker says, Parliament is a village, one that can only carry out its important work with the drive of parliamentary staff. The high-pressure nature of parliamentary work makes it a workplace that is equally as stressful for staff as it is MPs.
There is work to be done in risk assessment when it comes to mental health
Jenny Symmons, parliamentary aide and chair of the Members’ staff branch of the GMB union, tells The House that: “There has been huge progress [on staff mental health] over the past few years. However, staff too often have to take on the burden of their boss’s stress as well as their own.”
Where poor mental health arises amongst staff because of bullying and harassment by MPs, Jawad Raza, national officer for the House of Commons branch of the FDA, finds that the power imbalance makes it especially difficult for staff to challenge MPs. When giving evidence to the recent House of Commons Commission on the precautionary exclusion of MPs, Raza argued that there is an informal gentlemen’s agreement that MPs accused of serious misconduct stay off site, but it has often been breached at the expense of victims’ mental health. “Parliament is a workplace, there shouldn’t be a situation where someone is accused of serious misconduct and you don’t remove them for the safety of everyone else.”
Many parliamentary staff believe that the regulation of MPs’ conduct at work should go beyond precautionary exclusions to align Parliament with other workplaces. Symmons says that her GMB branch will “push for employment reform so there is a formal HR department for staff and a buffer between themselves and their boss.” She believes this would better mitigate the risks of staff developing poor mental health following bullying and harassment by MPs.
A failure to properly address the mental health crisis in Parliament also restricts access to the political profession. Currently, public trust in MPs is lower than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average. Recent research by the Carnegie Trust found that 76 per cent of the public in England don’t trust MPs to take decisions that will improve their lives. A lack of public trust in MPs sheds light on the dangers of the profession not being one in which Members feel safe to be vulnerable to our democracy at large.
Poulter believes that empathy is just as important to do the job of an MP as having an analytical mind. He fears that failure to properly support Members and staff will restrict the pool of people entering politics: “Politics is about public service. But currently there are other ways you can do it without the level of abuse and potential stresses MPs get. If we don’t address these issues, only those who are the most ‘resilient’ will become MPs. I don’t think that’s healthy."
Nichols agrees that without better mental health support, the pressure on MPs to ‘appear well’ during mental health crises makes the job even more difficult, especially for new MPs from underrepresented backgrounds.
Poulter suggests that many practices in Parliament are unnecessarily archaic, and changes that harness technological advances will go some way in encouraging a more diverse pool of people into becoming MPs. He cites electronic voting, which could enable MPs suffering with their mental health to work from home and be closer to their support networks. Both Symmons and Raza agree that this would also resolve issues with precautionary exclusions.
Whilst there is much work to be done to achieve parity of esteem between mental and physical health in Parliament, there is consensus among MPs and staff alike that Mr Speaker takes this goal incredibly seriously and is open to new ideas.
Alongside his existing efforts to improve mental health support for MPs, the Speaker is especially enthusiastic about the role animals play in improving mental health. When speaking about how his new cat, Atlee, brings comfort to MPs, staff, and visitors alike, he exclaims, “I’m a big softie. A bring your pet to work day in Parliament would be fantastic! Animals are so good for mental health and make a difference.”
News of a forthcoming bring your pet to work day would likely be extremely well-received amongst MPs. But today’s message from the Speaker to MPs who are struggling with mental health is an outstretched hand: “If you’re struggling with your mental health, you’re not on your own. We’re there, we have the help, please come forward and we will support you.”
Edmund Burke once described MPs as possessing unbiased opinion, mature judgment, and enlightened conscience. But MPs are ultimately human beings like the rest of us. They can be better representatives when they feel safe to be vulnerable.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.