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MSP mental health: 'I’ve got a fear of being judged or being criticised for not helping'

Humza Yousaf admitted recent weeks had 'been really difficult'

MSP mental health: 'I’ve got a fear of being judged or being criticised for not helping'

“I’m not ashamed at all to say that the last couple of weeks, or few weeks, have been really difficult for my mental health,” former First Minister Humza Yousaf said two days after returning to the SNP backbenches.

In a video posted on X about starting the running app Couch to 5K, he said politicians are “notoriously bad for practicing what they preach” – and while he had spoken often about the importance of taking care of yourself, at the same he said he had ignored his own health.

But the silver lining of a month in which he faced a no-confidence vote and was forced to resign was that it presented an “opportunity” to get fitter both physically and mentally.

The video followed some heart-warming posts from the MSP about spending more time with his family, including reading daughter Amal a bedtime story – opportunities for which were few and far between when he had the top job.

It also seems to be one of the few roles in society where that level of public humiliation is seen as socially acceptable

But his time as first minister ending in such a quick and brutal fashion must have taken its toll. And while opponents celebrate a political victory, there’s also a recognition about what that can mean for the individual.

“You can’t help but on a personal level feel for the [former] first minister,” says Labour MSP Paul Sweeney, “and it must be horrific to have that level of attention and scrutiny on you personally, and I suppose in the context of it being a bit of a humiliation. It must be a deeply stressful and unpleasant experience.”

We’re sitting in Sweeney’s office in central Glasgow at the end of the week in which Yousaf has resigned. It’s been a busy week and so I’ve started the conversation asking how he winds down at the end of it all.

Photo by David AndersonWhile Sweeney hasn’t been much involved – it is after all not his party – he is quick to reflect on the personal element. He continues: “Politics is necessarily the sort of job that requires public scrutiny and press scrutiny, but it also seems to be one of the few roles in society where that level of public humiliation is seen as socially acceptable. Sometimes we forget the toll that takes on the person.

“I’m genuinely quite surprised that there haven’t been more issues with severe mental illness in public life because of that, even potentially suicides, given the level of stress that’s associated with the job. In a way that’s a tribute to the level of resilience that people have, that they can cope with it.”

But that stress can easily become overwhelming. Two consecutive transport ministers – Graeme Dey and Kevin Stewart – resigned on mental health grounds. Yousaf was so under pressure as transport minister, as well as dealing with the break-up of his first marriage, that he sought counselling.

Earlier this year, SNP MSP Elena Whitham left her role as drug and alcohol minister to prioritise her mental health. In her resignation letter, she revealed she was receiving treatment for post-traumatic stress. Last week, she said she was “slowly but surely” getting better. On X, she wrote: “Mentally I am in a much better place than I was in February when I had retreated into the cocooned safety of my home and some days could not move from the sofa. A culmination of trauma had left me in a place where I did not recognise myself.”

And it’s not just frontbenchers. SNP MSP James Dornan took a break from the job last year. That followed a brief spell in hospital which allowed him to “reflect on my health in a way I’ve not felt the need to for a long time”.

But being open about their mental health is not the norm for politicians and a Holyrood survey of MSPs conducted in 2022 gave a flavour of the fear that still persists about stigma. One anonymous MSP said they felt speaking to their whips about the matter was “too risky” and another said mental ill-health was “still considered a sign of weakness in political spheres”.

SNP MSP Emma Roddick has experienced that first hand, having disclosed her PTSD and borderline personality disorder diagnoses before being elected. It led people to question her ability to do the job. “There were letters to editors, blog posts and even Reddit threads discussing how incapable I might be, listing symptoms that can be associated with my diagnosis and asking, ‘Does that sound like an MSP?’”, she recalled in a debate.

Photo by Anna MoffatWhether or not a politician has a pre-existing condition, the high-pressure and public-facing nature of the job means it is important for them to manage their mental health.

Conservative MSP Tess White says: “When you’re an MSP or an MP, it does expose all your vulnerabilities and you become aware of any weak spots. You always have to have your wits about you. Your mental health has to be in the right place, and you have to know when you’re feeling fragile… It’s very easy to have poor mental health in this job.

“And when an MSP or MP has poor mental health, everybody around them is affected – not just their team or their constituents, they can make wrong decisions. Being in this job, you owe it to yourself and your constituents, and you owe it to millions of people who rely on your performance, to be in tune with your mental health.”

I went through a tough period, and I ended up going to CBT which the parliament arranged

It’s an issue the Scottish Parliament is acutely aware of and its mental health policy explicitly mentions the pressures of a demanding role, feeling a “lack of control” and exposure to “traumatic” situations.

For this reason, it has a mental health helpline and 10 mental health first aiders on staff. A spokesperson said: “The parliament takes the mental health of MSPs, their staff and parliamentary staff extremely seriously. We offer a free, 24/7, confidential counselling and information service for all and we also have a team of trained mental health first aiders from within our staff who can offer assistance.

“The parliament’s mental health first aiders are a point of contact for those concerned about their mental health, offering initial support and advice, a listening ear, and guidance and signposting on where to access help.”

You live inside a bubble, and that bubble can be very intense and it can be hostile

White says this resource is very good, but she expresses concern that not all her colleagues know about it or how to make best use of it. “Nobody teaches you how to use HR,” she says.

Sweeney is a case in point. He admits he’s not sure what is available at Holyrood, though when he was an MP he did access support. “I went through a tough period, and I ended up going to CBT which the parliament arranged – talking therapy – to get some of the issues out. I think that was quite good that they provided that kind of support. I haven’t done it at the Scottish Parliament.

“I also went along to a mindfulness session that ran every week in the House of Commons and it was really good… I really enjoyed going because it was an hour where you were able to forget about all the shit, your phone and everything. It was just an hour to stop, but I’ve never heard of anything like that in the Holyrood parliament.”

Aside from more formal arrangements, there’s also an element of taking responsibility for their own wellbeing. That’s not always so easy, though. Sweeney says: “It’s easy to say these things and really hard to do. I’ve not succeeded… It’s very hard because you get dragged along by events. Self-discipline is a real challenge, you know? Saying no to things is really difficult. I guess I’ve got a fear of being judged or being criticised for not helping.”

The MSP admits to being a “people pleaser” and says he’s “chronically sleep deprived”. He continues: “I take a lot personally – not necessarily criticism, I mean that I get quite personally invested in a way that other colleagues are more successful at keeping a distance from… I do derive a lot of personal self-esteem from the role [but] I often feel like the patron saint of lost causes. That does create a real sense of frustration.”

When I interviewed him last year, he told me part of the reason losing his seat in the 2019 general election hit him so hard – he’s spoken elsewhere about being depressed throughout much of 2020 – was because he felt he’d sacrificed a lot in his personal life to be an MP. I ask whether he’s learned from that and makes more of an effort to maintain a better balance. After a pause, he admits with a slight laugh: “No.”

He later reveals that in some ways he feels he’s put the rest of his life in a “holding pattern” while he gets on with the job. He struggles to make plans, doesn’t often meet friends, and barely sees his family. “I accept it’s not healthy, but I enjoy doing a lot of what I do as well. That’s not saying that I don’t enjoy the work and find the work fulfilling, but sometimes the sheer amount of stuff can be overwhelming,” he says.

He also seems to have a habit of dismissing his own needs, too. Several times throughout the conversation he talks about getting a “reality check” from constituents who come to him “really struggling” with their own mental health because their basic needs – for food, good quality housing, enough income – aren’t being met. It all adds to the burden.

Sweeney’s feelings of pride in the job, though, are echoed by others. Mental wellbeing minister Maree Todd speaks warmly of her ministerial role and feeling like she’s making a difference.

But there are also some “downsides”, she says. “You live inside a bubble, and that bubble can be very intense and it can be hostile – that has taken me slightly by surprise. It can be very stressful…  I work very long hours, particularly when I’m down here in parliament; I pack it all in.”

At home in the Highlands I’m only ever going to be who I’ve always been. They’re not going to treat me differently

Todd says she had to learn quite quickly upon becoming a minister to take better care of her health. “Within about six months I realised that I just wasn’t moving at all. I literally would sit at my desk all day, people would come to me, people would bring me cups of tea. I’d get into the car, step out, give a speech, step back into the car.

“I’m someone who quite likes moving – I wasn’t a runner or anything, but I worked in a big hospital before I came here so I covered a lot of miles every day just walking up and down the hospital corridors. Even when I was a backbencher, I was running to and from the chamber. I was exercising enough.

“But when I became a minister, oh my goodness, I just stopped moving. And in six months I had gained a fair bit of weight and I was constantly sick. I just thought, ‘this is not good’. And that’s when I hit upon the Daily Mile.”

Something as simple as a walk is a good way to create distance from the job

She now runs at least a mile most days as part of her morning routine, which she describes as a “happy hormones hit”.

She also posits that living in the Highlands is beneficial because it is so distant from the cut and thrust of Holyrood. It makes separating worklife from homelife easier. “While the geography is difficult and the distance to work is hard to manage, at home in the Highlands I’m only ever going to be who I’ve always been. They’re not going to treat me differently. I’m very much accepted for who I am and they’re proud of me, so that helps.”

Lib Dem MSP Beatrice Wishart has a similar experience, saying it often feels like she has “two lives”: “The one where I live in Edinburgh through the week, when reading a book at the end of the day allows me to escape from reality. And the one in Shetland where two of my three daughters live. I try and keep Sundays clear for catch-up time with them and their families. Something as simple as a walk is a good way to create distance from the job.”

White finds it helpful to think about her mental health as “a bag of oranges”. “Every single orange you take out, you need to put one back in. So, if you think about walks at night, you’ve spent the day taking oranges out and then at night you’re putting one back in. The bag has to be balanced… Even going to get a coffee from [the parliament’s barista] Kirsty and just saying hello, it’s an orange to put back in the bag.”

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