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by Louise Wilson
20 May 2024
Labour MSP reveals sleep deprivation and anxiety struggle

Credit: David Anderson

Labour MSP reveals sleep deprivation and anxiety struggle

A Labour MSP has opened up about the pressures of being in public life and the strain it puts on politicians’ mental health.

Paul Sweeney, who is also Labour’s mental health spokesperson, told Holyrood magazine that he is “chronically sleep deprived” and regularly suffers from bouts of anxiety.

And he admitted he is “surprised” that more politicians do not suffer from “severe mental illness” due to the demanding job and the environment in which they operate.

His comments come at the same time as SNP MSP Elena Whitham spoke out about her own mental health journey.

The former drugs minister stepped down from that role earlier this year to prioritise treatment for post-traumatic stress.

Last year, Kevin Stewart MSP stepped down as transport minister citing mental health grounds, as did Graeme Dey MSP in 2022.

Speaking with Holyrood, Sweeney – who has previously revealed he suffered from depression after losing his Westminster seat in 2019 – said he finds it difficult to maintain a good work/life balance.

He said: “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 admitted that as an MP he struggled with feelings of isolation and loneliness, causing him to seek support. House of Commons staff arranged for him to undergo a series of CBT (a type of talking therapy) sessions.

Asked if he had got better since then at distancing himself from the day job, he said he hadn’t. He added: “It’s all consuming. It's hard to see how you would do it really. “I see a lot of colleagues who do maintain a decent work/life balance. I'm just eager to get involved and stuff.

“I take a lot personally – not necessarily criticism, I mean I get quite personally invested in maybe a way that other colleagues are more successful at keeping a distance from. I do find it quite hard to disassociate myself.”

He also reflected on the resignation of Humza Yousaf last month, expressing empathy for the SNP MSP who he said had been forced to step down “in the context of it being a bit of a humiliation”.

Sweeney added: “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.”

The Scottish Parliament has said it provides support for MSPs, their staff and parliament staff via a free mental health support service and 10 mental health first aiders.

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.”

Whitham revealed on social media last week that, at the height of her illness, “some days [I] could not move from the sofa”.

Adding that she was “mentally…in a much better place, ” she said: “A culmination of trauma had left me in a place where I did not recognise myself. My wonderful husband was worried sick to see me struggling with everyday tasks and simple decisions about what to have for tea were beyond me. My anxiety was through the roof and I had a very heightened fight or flight response. It was exhausting.”

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