Mental illness: The ‘black dog’ that ties politicians to a leash

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Mental illness: The ‘black dog’ that ties politicians to a leash

Politics a something of a laboratory for mental health challenges

Alaister Campbell


It is perhaps a sign of how few public figures speak about their mental health that leader of the Scottish Conservative Party Ruth Davidson recalling her teenage depression and self-harm has attracted so much interest.
What was deemed particularly newsworthy, given that the Tories’ Scottish leader is seen by some as a possible leader of the UK party, was her ruling herself out of the top job on the grounds that she prioritised her relationship with her partner and her mental health.
She described her past depression as being “like a smothering black blanket over my head, cutting out the sky”, and says that now, whenever she has a period of anxiety, she goes back to what works for her: “structure, exercise, forward momentum, measurable outcomes. Sometimes that’s hard in a job that’s 100 miles an hour.”
It has begged some interesting questions: is it possible to do hugely pressured jobs without a negative impact on mental well-being; do we expect too much of our politicians, and think too little of the pressure on families; and can someone with a history of mental illness be considered suitable for the toughest political role in the country?
My answer to the last question is, unequivocally, yes. Many readers would name Winston Churchill as Britain’s greatest leader, just as Americans would choose Abraham Lincoln as theirs. Both had lifelong struggles with depression. Indeed, it was Churchill who gave depression the label “black dog”.
Another great leader, Martin Luther King, was bipolar. His mania gave him energy, charisma, the ability to lead and inspire. His depressive instincts gave him empathy, an understanding of the pain of the human soul. With all three, I would argue that their experience of mental health challenges also gave them greater resilience.
Of course, Churchill and King, and even more so Lincoln, were leaders in different times, when there was more respect, fewer media, fewer demands and expectations. But politics has always been tough.
Few modern trolls could compete for cruelty with editors who called Lincoln, variously “nerveless, brainless, vacillating, unprincipled, a blunderer, a charlatan; a crude, illiterate, bar-room witling; fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism”.
On the one occasion a prime minister opened up about his depression, and even stood aside for several weeks during a difficult bout, the reactions were fascinating – widespread public support and sympathy, a cabinet that refused to countenance his resignation, and a rise in the polls. This was Norway’s leader, Kjell Magne Bondevik, in 1998.
Ruth Davidson, I confidently predict, will be surprised by how many messages of support she receives as a result of her admission. I predict so because it happened to me when I opened up about my psychosis, addiction and depression. Both with the public and the media – and from the latter especially – the understanding has been extraordinary.
Despite all this, politicians still tend to close down rather than open up, and it will take more than one interview by one politician to persuade me that this is changing much.
This week sees the publication of the seventh volume of my diaries. I record what amounted to a near out-of-body mental meltdown, live on the Andrew Marr programme. This was also the period when Marr asked Gordon Brown if he was on antidepressants. Because of the stigma that still surrounds mental health, this was deemed to be an intrusive, even cruel, question. Yet commentary on British Prime Minister Theresa May taking insulin for diabetes, or the Labour Party’s Tom Watson revealing how he dealt with his diabetes by confronting his sugar addiction, is fine.
We have one attitude for physical illness and another for mental illness.
In reality, politics is something of a laboratory for mental health challenges – stress, pressure, long hours, opprobrium, separation from home and family, the weight of decisions.
My own guess is that there would be more people in politics in need of psychological support than other walks of life. Yet other fields are doing a better job when it comes to openness.
Whether that is out of fear of being seen as weak, unable to cope with pressure, or fearful of the views of others, I don’t know. But it would be better for the politicians, and for all of us, if they and we felt we could be as open about our mental health as our physical health.
The passages in Vol 7 that most made me feel we had to change attitudes concern late former Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy. Having had my own struggles with alcohol, Charles, a personal friend, felt he could talk to me about his. He knew he had a problem yet, though he came close, could never quite take the steps needed to deal with it.
One of the reasons was the fear of the reactions of others: colleagues, opponents, media, constituents.
As Charles was such a public figure, I felt he would have to be open about his drinking problem. A part of me wonders whether he might still be with us had he felt able to do that. We will never know, but we do know that being able to admit to a problem, without fear of the reaction of others, is often the most important step towards solving it.
Alastair Campbell was the spokesperson for former UK PM Tony Blair.
– © The Daily Telegraph

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