'I would like to try and break down the stigma around mental health and disability' - interview with Emma Roddick MSP
mma Roddick had been an MSP for all of 48 hours when she received her brutal induction to life at Holyrood.
The 23-year-old wondered aloud on social media how she was expected to live, travel and dress for her new life as a parliamentarian in the weeks before receiving the first of her £64,470 salary.
“Hello, unplanned overdraft…,” she tweeted along with a worried-looking emoji.
Her concern was natural for someone who had not previously been a higher earner. Before taking up her seat at Holyrood, she had worked for the Scottish Ambulance Service in Inverness and experienced periods of homelessness.
But while her tweet could, at worst, be seen as a little naïve, much of the response to it was uncompromising.
“Aw, diddums. Your sheer entitlement is on full display here, please reflect on this tweet for the benefit of your constituents,” replied Glasgow Tory MSP Annie Wells.
For the young MSP, the episode was a salutary lesson but also an indication that despite all the rhetoric around understanding other people’s experiences, frontline politics can still be an unforgiving place.
And while she received high-profile support from the likes of Ruth Davidson and Green MSP Ross Greer, Roddick, who has borderline personality disorder and considers herself disabled due to her mental health and physical mobility issues, says she received hate mail after the incident.
“For years, I’ve used social media as a way of interacting with a small group of constituents in Inverness and then all of a sudden, I had thousands of followers who weren’t necessarily following because they wanted to hear what I was saying or what I was up to, but because they want to catch you out or they want to fight with you.”
Roddick says she received “screeds of abuse” along with some more understanding emails after the incident.
“Some were just angry, but I replied saying I know why you’re angry and here’s the full explanation; this is where I’m coming from. A couple of them got back to me and thanked me for explaining it.”
Asked whether the anger directed her way resulted from Wells’ tweet, she says: “Yes, very probably. The thing about Twitter is that it’s full of bubbles. Before, I was in quite a small bubble but as soon as somebody from another party quote-tweets you, your tweet is being shown to this whole other bubble with a whole other viewpoint. Certainly, a few of them came from there.”
Roddick has been open about her borderline personality disorder (BPD), which is categorised as an emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD).
According to the mental health charity Mind, feelings and behaviours associated with BPD can be very difficult to live with and deserve understanding and support, although the diagnosis is very broad and can affect different people in a multitude of different ways.
People with BPD are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, eating disorders and substance misuse.
Common experiences include extreme highs and lows; an unstable sense of identity; self-harm and fears of being abandoned or rejected.
Roddick says she was first diagnosed as a teenager.
“I would like to try and break down the stigma around mental health and disability,” she says.
“The election campaign opened my eyes to just how much misinformation is out there and how much suspicion there is towards people. There’s a lot of ‘you can’t do that job’ because you have this. Every day I was being sent lists of symptoms and being told they were the things I suffer with, but they weren’t my symptoms; they were things people had found on Wikipedia…
“We have improved a lot (in the discussion of mental health), but the bar was set so low. We’ve still got a long way to go. The term personality disorder sounds scary, and people don’t really know what it means so they are suspicious.”
Roddick says there are 256 possible combinations of the symptoms that commonly make up BPD, meaning the experience of having the condition varies greatly from person to person.
“When I was younger, I suffered trauma and my brain just created ways of dealing with that which led to unhealthy thinking patterns. When somebody has something like this, you go through so much therapy that you become really introspective, and you really have to work on yourself.
“Some people I have been through group therapy with are probably the healthiest people I know because they’ve had to really look at everything that goes on in their brain.”
On the day of my interview with Roddick, Labour MP Nadia Whittome, herself just 24, announces that she’s “stepping back” from her work because of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In a statement, the Nottingham East MP said it was important for her to be honest about her mental ill-health.
“Through being open about my own mental health struggle, I hope that others will also feel able to talk about theirs, and that I can play a small role in creating greater acceptance and facilitating healthier discussions around this issue,” she said.
But while there is now far greater understanding of mental ill-health, politics remains a stressful profession.
And not everyone thinks Roddick is cut out for it.
After her election last month, the pro-independence blogger Wings over Scotland posted an article about Roddick, calling her a “truly epic idiot” and saying she only got to the top of the SNP regional list because of her BPD.
“Personally, we can barely think of a more unsuitable job for someone with BPD than being an MSP,” he wrote. “It seems criminally reckless and irresponsible for the SNP to have put her in such a position.”
Roddick says she hasn’t seen the article, but says the criticisms are unfair.
“Part of looking after my mental health is not reading Wings over Scotland, but that is typical of the sort of thing that’s presented to me. It’s not true (about being top of the list because of mental health). I’ve been disabled for a long time; I’ve had to seek help from the DWP due to disability and that far predates any mechanism that the party chose to implement.”
And on the point that being an MSP is an unsuitable job for someone with BPD, she says: “I do recognise that that’s what some people think. Maybe that’s because there hasn’t been someone in the parliament who openly has a personality disorder. Maybe in five years’ time, they won’t be saying that because they’ll be saying ‘we had Emma Roddick MSP and she did a good job’.”
Roddick has been a Highland councillor since 2019, championing causes such as improved housing availability and better mental health provision.
In 2020, she successfully petitioned to have NHS 24 add an option to its 111 helpline for those in need of out-of-hours mental health support.
But during her time in local government, she has also received death and rape threats and her home was broken into twice without anything being taken, something police believed was politically motivated. Roddick says the experience was “scary”.
Despite all this, she still faces the charge from some quarters that she hasn’t garnered enough so-called “life experience” to properly represent constituents at Holyrood.
“I hear that phrase quite a lot, ‘life experience’, but I’m not quite sure what people mean by it,” she says. “I’ve had plenty of experiences in my life and I don’t think there’s a particular age barrier on doing this job.
“Everybody has something to offer, something they’ve experienced that they can bring to the table or issues they are interested in.
“Even as a councillor, there were times I would bring up a housing issue, asking how it applied to somebody who didn’t have a current address, or who had a different address every other week and that’s something most of the other people in the room wouldn’t have thought of. Just having that awareness that one size doesn’t fit all…”
In one respect Roddick has some very relevant life experience that has given her a painful insight into just how damaging the pandemic has been.
Earlier this year, her mum, Sue, died of COVID. She was 59 and had been shielding when she contracted the virus.
“We certainly didn’t expect her to leave us this year,” Roddick says. “We don’t know how she contracted it but it’s something I’m quite keen to look into because she was shielding at home.”
Asked if she re-considered standing as an MSP following her mum’s death, she says: “I’d already put my name forward as a candidate. I spoke to her when she was taken off the ventilator and said I would withdraw. She said, ‘don’t you dare’.
“It was quite a welcome focus for me while dealing with her estate and the funeral, to have something exciting going on and be able to come home and go to a Zoom meeting where I could talk about making the country better.”
Roddick cares about issues such as affordable housing provision in the Highlands and as a nationalist, she wants a second independence referendum.
But like the majority of her colleagues across the Chamber, she realises that recovery from the pandemic must come first.
“I’m very aware that there are routine surgeries and appointments that have been put off and that’s created quite a backlog for the NHS,” she says.
“I’m also keen to see how we cope with lifting the restriction on evictions because there’s obviously that fear that we’re going to see hundreds of people being evicted. We need to see how we’re going to support people if that turns out to be the case.”
Roddick is also not a stranger to controversy.
In 2019, while standing to be a councillor, she declined to sign the Women’s Pledge, an initiative by SNP activists who sought to protect the rights of women, including the protection of “female-only spaces”.
Majory Smith, the SNP’s women’s officer in Nairn, called for Roddick to be sanctioned by the party after private messages appeared in the media in which Smith was alleged to have made transphobic comments.
Asked why she didn’t sign the pledge, Roddick says: “I was quite wary. It was not coming from a place of concern for women, it was coming from a place of fear about trans women.”
She says the issue of gender recognition and of trans rights is not one which is often raised by her constituents.
“It’s something that is very rarely raised with me and when it is, it tends to be from pressure groups which, relative to the population, are very small. It’s never been raised by a constituent or someone who is genuinely asking questions. So, I don’t think it’s as big or as impactful as some are making it out to be. There are certainly a lot of other issues facing women in Scotland that I would much rather be discussing.
“I think a lot of people have put a lot of time and energy into this that could maybe be better spent elsewhere. I completely understand folk who feel under threat or feel their rights may be taken away, but I certainly don’t understand many other people having it as one of their main issues when it doesn’t really affect them.”