"It does take its toll": MSPs talk about politics and mental health

Written by Liam Kirkaldy on 24 May 2018 in Inside Politics

Annie Wells, Monica Lennon, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Clare Haughey and Jenny Gilruth discuss mental health policy, alongside their own experiences

Annie Wells, Monica Lennon, Alex Cole-Hamilton, Clare Haughey and Jenny Gilruth - image credit: David Anderson

When newly-elected MSPs arrive at Holyrood, they are given inductions aimed at providing a crash course in how the Scottish Parliament works – its mechanics and structures, how the committees are run, where the toilets are. Offices are allocated and security passes are handed out to the excited new representatives.

But while they receive support on everything from procedure to research, as well as the physical logistics of working in the place, far less attention is paid to preparing them for the psychological impact the job may have on them.

Yet, if you were trying to design a job with the aim of causing as much stress as possible, being an MSP would surely be up there near the top of the list: long hours, high pressure, regular separation from friends and family, and the potential to end up receiving abuse online. The job’s terms and conditions appear ripe for wearing someone down.

As Alex Cole-Hamilton, Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh Western, explained: “I was really struck by the fact that we get loads of induction about how things work, but very little support on how to handle the case work, and sometimes the casework you get is pretty hard-core. It’s life and death stuff sometimes and there’s very little training in how to help those people, but also, in how to process the emotions that brings up.

“That was quite a steep learning curve, not just for me but my staff as well. I think there’s probably something that parliament can do around that, just to help you decompress from some of that stuff. And then I think all of us, at some point, have been subject to abuse or attacks, or sometimes police investigations, which can really take their mental toll, especially if they’re drawn out [Cole-Hamilton was subject to a police investigation into his 2016 election campaign spending]. Speaking personally, that really did take its toll emotionally. I think you just lean on your friends as much as you can.”

When Holyrood invited a group of MSPs to come together and talk about mental health, it was striking to hear how common some of the challenges brought by office appear to be.

SNP MSP Clare Haughey said: “When you first come into parliament, you have absolutely no idea about the pressures that are going to be on you. You might think that you’ve thought about it and prepared for it but you really haven’t. You’ve been concentrating on the campaign, and what happens after election day really is ‘oh we’ll deal with that then’. There’s a lot of expectation that you’ll know what you’re doing from day one but it’s like any job, you’ve got to learn. I thought I could deal with very difficult issues quite well, just given my background, but actually, it is quite different when you’re an MSP, you don’t get to clock off, the way that you do in other jobs.”

Mental health has clearly risen up the political agenda over the past few years – as Labour MSP Monica Lennon put it: “It feels like there’s not a week that goes by without mental health being discussed at FMQs, if not by a party leader, then from a backbench question.”

But while politicians are quick to agree that mental wellbeing is as important as physical – the go-to phrase is for them to be held in ‘parity of esteem’ – there remains a sense that, for all the talk, practice is yet to catch up with the rhetoric.

Lennon said: “There is a lot of good practice but it still feels like we’re not meeting the demands. We see that in waiting times for CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services), but it’s not just about that very formal route to treatment or diagnosis, I think it’s also about spotting things at a very early stage. People may just need somebody to talk to and you can maybe just help someone get over a difficult patch, but we’ve all seen if things go unnoticed, untreated, it can escalate into a bigger problem.”

CAMHS have been at the centre of concerns over service provision. The Scottish Government aims to deliver a maximum wait of 18 weeks from referral to treatment – expected to be achieved in at least 90 per cent of cases – yet average waiting times actually rose during 2017, with the percentage seen within the 18-week target dropping from 82.5 per cent at the end of 2016 to 73.3 per cent by mid-2017.

Before entering parliament, Haughey worked as a mental health nurse. She says we have come “a huge distance” in the way the issue of mental health has been treated.

“We used to have mental health hospitals, essentially, old-fashioned asylums, on the edge of cities. There wasn’t the treatment in the community that there is now. I remember, during my training, working with one of the handful of community psychiatric nurses that there were for the whole of the Southside of Glasgow. Now we have scores and hundreds of mental health professionals working in the community right across the whole of Glasgow, but also the whole of Scotland.”

Haughey added: “We’ve seen a huge explosion in terms of the workforce in mental health services, from CAMHS right through to older adult services. We’ve also seen Scotland’s first mother and baby unit open in Glasgow, the second in Edinburgh, you’ve seen the perinatal mental health services now on the agenda. We’ve come on leaps and bounds and I think as a society, we’ve changed our attitude towards mental illness hugely. I don’t think you can underestimate how important that really is. It’s certainly not something that you could have seen 20-30 years ago, people talking openly about being depressed, feeling suicidal, accessing services for treatment, particularly men. Actually saying, ‘this affects me’ just like they would say, ‘I’ve had cancer’, or something else. I think we really do need to have mental health champions, mental health ambassadors at that level, who can say it affects me so you can talk about it too.”

Meanwhile SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth acknowledges that more needs to be done to improve service provision and reduce waiting times, but, as a former teacher, she argues that education also has a role to play in protecting mental health. 

She told Holyrood: “When we look at school education, I do think that culturally, 20 years ago, when we were at school, mental health wasn’t spoken about. The language of CfE [Curriculum for Excellence] lends itself to that more positive ethos in terms of education but I remember when I first started teaching, in 2007/08, and there was a guy who taught across the way from me who used to take kids outside for a shout. This is what they would do. But if you think about it, you’re a grown man shouting at teenage adolescent children. I don’t think it’s good for anybody’s mental health to be shouted at but in a school environment, what’s that teaching them?

“Secondary schools, certainly traditional secondary schools, probably had that approach to discipline, and I think we’re moving away from it but I know that when I was still teaching three years ago, you would have kids that were sent to the desk outside the deputy head’s office, and they would sit there on an internal exclusion for a week. An eighth of the curriculum is meant to be devoted to health and wellbeing, so to some extent, it’s actually for the schools to evidence how they’re meeting those expectations.”

Yet while the MSPs at the Holyrood discussion agree that the issue is treated more seriously than it was – even if waiting times still defy targets – it’s clear that mental ill-health will impact on everyone at some point in their life.

Being a politician means taking on other people’s problems. Every day they sit and listen to people’s stories. They need to listen in order to provide assistance, but isn’t there a danger they carry what they’ve heard around with them afterwards? Some of the stories they hear are truly miserable, and even if they are confronting them professionally, some of that must surely soak through over time.

So how do MSPs look after their own mental health? How do they protect themselves? Tory MSP Annie Wells describes sitting in a café shortly after being elected – she hadn’t even been assigned an office – and feeling the weight of her responsibilities as she listened to a constituent describe the problems he was confronting.

“He was ready to go to the river Clyde and jump off the bridge because his wife wouldn’t let him see the kids, and the police were after him because of something completely fabricated, but I remember thinking, ‘how do I deal with this? I don’t know how to deal with it’, and I was lucky enough that the person I was with was actually a counsellor, and I had a little bit of experience.

“For me, in this job, there are days where you walk in or you wake up and your head is really mixed up, confused, and you don’t know whether you’re confused, depressed, anxious, or whatever, but you do need to take that step back. The member of staff I’ve got working for me in the parliament, is actually a Samaritan, so I’ve got that kind of back up and she does give me help with mindfulness stuff, and it does help on those days where you really need that. I think it’s something that we could be more proactive at. I needed the push to do it but I think that when you do, you actually feel better for it. But it’s about taking that 15 minutes out of your day to actually do it.”

Monica Lennon says she has also taken steps to try and look after herself and the health of her staff. “SAMH had training in the parliament for MSP staff who are on the front line dealing with casework recently, because of the issues that people are facing over benefit sanctions, or just the pressures people have, our staff are on the other end of the phone. I think we’re all much more aware about suicide prevention but it’s a lot more responsibility [to take on], and particularly for young caseworkers, who have maybe just been out of university a couple of years.

“That does take its toll so part of it is making sure that people have the right training, and it’s also about knowing when it’s time to take a step back as well. We all want to do the best for our constituents, but it can be very emotionally draining and challenging if you’re not able to fix everyone’s problems as quickly as you would like. That can be quite difficult, because regardless of party colours, we’re all here because we want to help people, but it’s about managing your own expectations about how much you can actually do.”

Of course, none of this is new. But while MSPs and MPs have always played a kind of quasi-counselling role, the growth of social media means that even when they leave the office, they are still accessible.

Jenny Gilruth told Holyrood: “I think it’s important to think about children and young people’s mental health with social media. Certainly, for me, when we were all elected in 2016, I was not used to having a public persona on social media because as a teacher, everything was private. I remember going back to school after the holidays and the kids saying, ‘Miss Gilruth, you’re famous now, I found your Facebook page!’ And they were just completely obsessed with it because suddenly, I was accessible, and you have to be accessible because that’s our job.

“So, we don’t just have ‘Mr Angry Constituent’ who’s getting in touch with you, and it might be about legitimate concerns, but sometimes I think part of the problem is sifting through that anger to get to the root of the problem and that can be quite an ordeal in itself. I think about the constituent who came to my office and he was so angry he wouldn’t even sit down. You can imagine the physical nature of a guy in a small office standing over me and my female member of staff. So I stood up, because I didn’t like the power imbalance, and we got to the heart of the issue, because his son’s bike had been stolen. But his son lived in England and I couldn’t help with it, and we had to go through the process of trying to explain to him. He was absolutely furious.

“Nothing prepares you for that and Monica’s right, sometimes we can’t help. You come home at the end of the day, certainly I do on a Friday sometimes, and even after two years, you think you should know the answer but you don’t always. That’s OK sometimes because, as Alex said, you’re acting essentially as a counsellor and coming to see you in your surgery for 10 minutes is their way of just venting everything to you, and even if you’re just going to write a letter on their behalf to the council, or to whoever it is locally, at least they feel you’re doing something on their behalf. I think that’s part of the battle, managing their expectations.

“But I certainly think the social media stuff, I wasn’t used to at all and that makes you accessible in a way that a 9-5 job wouldn’t. That means people emailing you at 11pm on a Saturday night after they’ve had a few wines – ‘I’m raging about this, I’ve seen this in the paper, I’m going to send my MSP an email’. But then you say to them, come in, have a meeting, let’s talk about it, and more often than not, they don’t show. So it’s trying to figure out which cases are, I don’t know, not more important than others, but which cases are actually people needing help, or which cases are just people perhaps having a political rant, which does happen in this job.”

Lennon agrees that social media has brought new challenges. “On social media, you think everyone’s having the time of their lives and everyone’s house is perfect, everyone’s having the best lunch ever, their children are amazing, they’re having a date night and all this… everyone’s life looks perfect and actually, a lot of that is staged and it’s not really real. I’ve got a young daughter who’s going to high school this year and you do worry about the pressure, I think especially on girls, but toxic masculinity is a huge issue too.”

And while the growth of online communication has opened doors for members of the public to contact politicians – for good and bad – there is also no escaping the fact that political chaos will inevitably impact on the actors operating in the centre of it.

As Cole-Hamilton put it: “My daughter just turned four and in her first three years of life, there were nine electoral tests – referendums, council elections, Scottish parliament elections, a general election, a snap general election – and it definitely took its toll on my relationship with my wife and with my kids. I tried to backfill that whenever I could but there was no substitute for it. It was definitely the chief thing that we would fight about. My wife and I would argue about the commitment, the time commitment, of this job.

“You’ve got this constant tension of wanting to do the very best for the people that sent you here but also to protect the people you love and your own peace of mind as well, and that’s a really difficult balance. Now that we’re into a relative period of calm, electorally speaking, it’s getting a bit easier. But with young kids, it’s definitely the hardest and that has a strain on your mental health because you see suddenly everything is a priority in this job. Suddenly there’s this reception you forgot you were chairing and you’ve got to break it to your partner, ‘I’m not coming home at 5 o’clock tonight’.”



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