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Tuesday, July 02, 2019

The toll that elected office takes on politicians

There was a very interesting article in yesterday's Guardian, on the first study of psychological wellbeing among parliamentarians at Westminster which has found that three out of four MPs probably or definitely suffer from poor mental health.

The paper says that the research has found that members of the House of Commons are much more likely than either the general population or people in other high-level jobs to be troubled by distress, depression and similar conditions.

Analysis of information given by 146 MPs who filled in a questionnaire about their mental wellbeing showed that 62 (42%) had “less than optimal mental ill health” while another 49 (34%) had “probable mental ill health”. Just 35 (24%) had “no evidence of probable mental ill health”.

Dr Dan Poulter, the lead co-author of the study, and himself a Conservative MP and practising NHS psychiatrist said:

“Being an MP can be quite a lonely occupation. The work itself is inherently stressful. MPs are potentially at greater risk of developing mental health problems because of the nature of their work and because they work in a high-stress environment where there are many brickbats and not many bouquets,” said Poulter, who was a health minister from 2012-15 in the coalition government.

“There is also the long hours – MPs can work up to 60-hour weeks at Westminster and in their constituencies – and the fact that, by spending most of the week away from home, that puts a strain on relationships and they don’t have a supportive family environment to go home to at the end of the day.” 

Compared with four other types of employees, including the total population, corporate managers, all managers and high-earners, MPs have higher levels of feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness and depression. For example, 34% of MPs have a common mental disorder, double the 17% among those in high-income groups.

MPs “had lower levels of concentration, were losing sleep because of worry, were feeling less useful, were less capable of making decisions and were feeling under constant strain” compared with those in the four comparator groups, the study says.

Similarly, “a higher weighted proportion of MPs could not overcome difficulties, were less able to enjoy normal day-to-day activities, were less able to face up to their problems, reported losing confidence in themselves or feeling unhappy and depressed, and considered themselves to be a worthless person”.

The whipping system is another source of psychological upset for MPs, as is abuse, harassment and bullying, according to the findings, which are published in the journal BMJ Open. The “partisan, and occasionally confrontational and aggressive environment at Westminster” can also damage MPs’ wellbeing, Poulter added.

Having been a full-time elected politician myself, I can recognise all these issues, though the Welsh Assembly is a much more supportive environment, it is smaller, more congenial and members are closer to their family.

Nevertheless, even with staff to support you, being a Parliamentarian is a lonely job, with a huge weight of expectation heaped upon you. Performance anxiety, loneliness, long hours, stress, and insecurity all take their toll.

Losing my seat was a huge blow, but I very quickly discovered a mental balance that I had been missing for many years. I felt more relaxed, more at ease and greater contentment. I also found I had time for personal projects that I had been planning for many years, but had not got around too.

It was a great privilege being a Welsh Assembly Member, and I enjoyed most of the time I did that job. I acquired great personal satisfaction out of helping people, and securing important changes through legislation and budget negotiations, but my time in that job is past. I will not be going back.
Leo Amery, a Conservative MP who lost his seat in the Labour landslide of 1945, seemed unfazed by it, saying that it opened up new horizons and that that was always invigorating. And MPs were under much less pressure then...
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