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by Margaret Taylor
09 May 2022
Taking Stock: Polling finds MSPs struggling with anxiety and mental ill health

Taking Stock: Polling finds MSPs struggling with anxiety and mental ill health

Mental health is something the Scottish Parliament takes very seriously.

Already this year there have been debates in the chamber on mental health and wellbeing in primary care services and among veterans while the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee has discussed perinatal mental health, the Cross-Party Group on Mental Health has tackled subjects as diverse as the rights and protections offered to people with a mental disorder and the impact of Covid-19 on the mental wellbeing of people with pre-existing health conditions, and, at the beginning of May, a joint session between the mental health group and the Cross-Party Group on Health Inequalities addressed questions around stigma and how community input can help to reduce it.

Yet when it comes to discussing their own mental health, parliamentarians have been decidedly more circumspect. Though 68 per cent of MSPs responding to a recent Holyrood poll said they have suffered from a mental health issue such as depression, anxiety or stress and a fifth said they had had suicidal thoughts, just 35 per cent said they had been open about that at work and, of those, only 11 per cent had turned to their party for support.

The statistics might make for sobering reading, but the reasoning behind some of the reticence is even more stark, with one MSP noting that as there is “no outlet available to seek help with mental health issues” they felt that “dealing with it personally is the only option”. Another said that even if there was an outlet they would not use it because the fear of stigma, particularly in parliamentary circles, is so high.

“Awareness and acceptance has grown and is much better in society,” the politician said, “[but] the parliament is a different place and I still view any confession of problems to my party whips as too risky. I fear they would use it against me.”

This was echoed by another survey respondent, who noted that mental ill-health is “still considered a sign of weakness in political spheres” and highlighted how that can be pounced upon by social-media trolls.

“[Politics] is an environment where there’s always someone hot on your heels gunning for your party position and that makes it incredibly difficult to admit to suffering – any weakness or any time out or off probably means you’ll be parked to the back seats for a while on health grounds,” they said. 

“There’s no reason why people can’t still do frontline, high-profile jobs and be open about mental health. You wouldn’t sack someone if they had cancer or broke their foot, so why is mental health a weakness?

“[But] that’s just internal – in the real world it’s worse. People are actually quite gleeful if you are suffering publicly. Many wish it on you and they often hide behind anonymous profiles [on social media]. People forget that we are actually all people, with feelings and families and the same day-to-day problems as everyone else in the world.”

For another respondent, it is precisely this kind of reaction on the part of the public that would put them off sharing their own experiences, even if there can be a certain pressure for politicians to lead by example when it comes to showing that it is okay not to be okay. Doing so could, the respondent suggested, have an inadvertently exacerbative effect on politicians’ mental ill-health.

Indeed, 64 per cent of the politicians who took part in the survey said they had received personal abuse that impacted on their mental wellbeing. More than half (54 per cent) of those said that abuse occurred on social media while a further 13 per cent said it took place online and 29 per cent said it happened in person.

“I think there is a need to be careful not to medicalise every single emotion or feeling that we experience, perhaps particularly in times of stress and trauma like we have been through during the pandemic,” the respondent said.

“While being open about mental health on a personal level, for example with friends, family, colleagues or health-care professionals, is important, it’s crucial that people don’t feel pressured to publicly declare everything, particularly on social media.

“I worry about new colleagues perhaps oversharing on forums like Twitter, for example, and putting more pressure on themselves by having to deal with the public response. It’s okay to have privacy about these things too.”

Holyrood first asked MSPs question about their mental health a year ago, with concerns about how the pandemic had impacted on everyone’s lives making it more pertinent than ever to assess how our public servants – many of whom had to fulfill highly stressful, demanding roles in the public eye while also trying to navigate an unprecedented situation in their private lives – were bearing up.

The results of that survey, which 71 MSPs responded to, revealed that 43 per cent of respondents described their mental health as being “very good” and 18 per cent as “excellent” against 34 per cent who described it as “fair” and five per cent who said it was “not great”.

Yet a large proportion – 69 per cent – had suffered from a mental health issue at some point in their life. Of those, the vast majority – 82 per cent – said it had impacted on their work life.

This year, with almost a third (39) of MSPs responding to the Holyrood poll, the proportions remain broadly unchanged, with 18 per cent saying their mental health is “excellent”, 41 per cent saying it is “very good”, 36 per cent describing it as “fair” and five per cent answering “not great”.

At the same time, 68 per cent said they had had a mental health issue at some point in their life, while 85 per cent of those said it had impacted on their work or personal life.

While on one level it is encouraging that the numbers have remained largely the same, it may also be of concern that the proportion of MSPs answering “fair” or “not great” have not come down, with a study released by the University of Edinburgh last month suggesting that pandemic-induced levels of anxiety and depression could remain for years to come.

The researchers reported that the high levels of mental health issues they found early in the pandemic continued at similar rates even after the first lockdown lifted, before becoming worse during the second lockdown. They said this suggests that increased levels of mental health problems are likely to continue for some time, even though all restrictions have now been lifted.

64 per cent of the politicians who took part in the survey said they had received personal abuse that impacted on their mental wellbeing

That, and the answers to some of the other questions in the survey, should give the government pause for thought. It is unsurprising, for example, that so few MSPs who have experienced mental ill-health have been open about their experiences with their parties or the parliament when 89 per cent (down one percentage point from 90 per cent last year) said they felt there was a continuing stigma associated with mental health issues.

And while 58 per cent said they had sought medical help to deal with their own mental ill-health, a much larger proportion – 95 per cent – said there needs to be greater parity between care for mental and physical health within the NHS.

A March report from the Mental Health Foundation, London School of Economics and Political Science, and the University of Strathclyde shows exactly why that parity is needed – and fast – with mental health problems thought to cost the Scottish economy around £8.8b a year, mostly due to lost productivity. The researchers noted that the true figure is thought to be significantly higher as health service costs are based on the number of people receiving treatment rather than the number that would benefit from it but have not sought it out.

“Our report reveals the opportunity we have to revolutionise our approach to mental health in Scotland,” Lee Knifton, director of the Mental Health Foundation in Scotland, said.

“It’s time to increase investment in population-level prevention of mental health problems. We can’t only treat our way out of the mental health crisis, which is worsening due to the pandemic, and we cannot afford the spiralling costs to both people’s wellbeing and our economy.

“We urge the Scottish Government to pay attention to what the evidence is telling us and commit to prioritising prevention in mental health. A prevention-first approach will not only help break down the barriers to good mental health but empower people to thrive at every stage of their lives and boost our economy in the long run.”

Back in the pre-pandemic days of 2017, the Scottish Government launched a 10-year strategy aimed at improving the nation’s mental health, recognising that “mental illness is one of the major public health challenges in Scotland” and promising to improve everything from prevention and early intervention to access to treatment and the physical wellbeing of people with mental health problems.

There has been no shortage of initiatives since, with strategies for dealing with the impact of dementia and autism being drawn up, a Suicide Prevention Action Plan being out in place, and a £250m investment package being allocated to provide dedicated mental health counsellors in schools.

In February last year, as part of its Covid-19 response, the government also made £120m of funding available for a Mental Health Recovery and Renewal Fund aimed at “improving how people can manage their mental health with appropriate early support and be referred to additional support when required”. 

At the time the 10-year strategy was launched, the then minister for mental health, Maureen Watt, said the aim was to “create a Scotland where all stigma and discrimination related to mental health is challenged, and our collective understanding of how to prevent and treat mental health problems is increased”.

“We want to see a nation where mental healthcare is person-centred and recognises the life-changing benefits of fast, effective treatment,” she said. “We want a Scotland where we act on the knowledge that failing to recognise, prioritise and treat mental health problems costs not only our economy, but harms individuals and communities. In short, we share the ambition that you should only have to ask once to get help fast.”

The politicians responding to the Holyrood survey were not convinced the government is on track. Though 95 per cent said that mental health issues are “important” to their constituents, one stressed the importance of “continu[ing] to increase the emphasis on mental health” while another expressed the view that “mental health is [not] understood or the impact on an individual and those around them”.

Others were more blunt about the scale of the issue. “Mental health support in Scotland is so poor and needs a huge amount of support and focus,” said one. “Services [are] at crisis point –  [there are] too many on waiting lists and insufficient professional mental health staff,” added another.

There may be five years left for the Scottish Government to fully put its 10-year plan in place, but thanks in part to the impact of the pandemic it is still some way off meeting its ambitious targets. And, as the Holyrood polling has shown, it is going to have to get its own house in order too before it can say it has created the “better Scotland” Watt noted that “our people deserve”. 

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