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Why should we care about the mental health of politicians?

Alana James (Royal Holloway University of London) reports from a talk in the student stream at the Society's Annual Conference.

22 May 2017

Ashley Weinberg (University of Salford) had a tough job in his Student Conference keynote. In the age of austerity, a time when it seems that the UK government does not care about the wellbeing of its citizens, and at a conference where many speakers presented a picture of the NHS on its knees, Weinberg sought to convince us of one thing: we should care about the mental health of politicians.

I’ll be honest, there is an angry, politically disillusioned part of me which does not want to care. If the people, particularly the most vulnerable amongst us, are to suffer at the hands of politicians’ decisions then it is very tempting to be dismissive of politicians’ wellbeing. That would be wrong though and worse, foolish.

Research by Weinberg and others has shown that being a member of parliament is a demanding job. Stressors reported by MPs in the UK include too much work, long hours, taking work home, and a lack of emotional support at work. Still, we may argue, many of us work long hours in stressful jobs. However politicians’ physical and psychological symptoms exceed those found in the typical population, even though MPs in the UK have similar personality profiles to the general public. Weinberg has found that even in the new, devolved parliaments politicians report similar levels of strain, and leaving the job might not alleviate the symptoms; strain levels stay high for politicians if they are forced out by losing their seat at an election.

But surely, you are thinking, politicians must expect governing a nation to be tough (well, perhaps not Trump). What Weinberg reasoned was that surely we still want them to do a good job, and as psychologists we know the importance of mental health for that. We should be concerned if stress prevents our politicians from making good decisions, after all those decisions affect us. We should be worried, Weinberg argued, if a leader of the country becomes bent on a dubious goal from which they are not able to deviate due to psychological illness or an inability to cope.

In the UK parliament at least, working conditions for MPs are improving. Parliamentary debates are no longer held throughout the night, days are allocated for working within your constituency, and the parliamentary calendar is now aligned with school holidays. Importantly there is now a counselling service available within Westminster. A recent All Party Parliamentary Group on Mental Health has also led to the creation of a booklet by Mind, Rethink Mental Illness, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, advising MPs and staffers on how to support people experiencing mental health problems.

Weinberg pointed out a gap in the list of organisations involved in that work: the BPS. In a related vein, in his address as departing President of the Society, Peter Kinderman spoke passionately about the need for the BPS to have a stronger voice and more impact on what is happening in our society. Perhaps Weinberg’s call for a new Political Psychology Section of the Society is a step in that direction.

You can find lots more coverage from the Society's Annual Conference, including more about the online world, and coming up in the July print edition.

See also Ashley Weinberg's article on 'Building democracy', and revisit our 2015 special