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Mental wellbeing of politicians matters for democracy

Politicians are under enormous pressure. Citizens and the media monitor their work at all times as it should be in a democracy, political rivals keep criticising and there is often pressure even from one’s own political party to remain united. Being a subject of constant scrutiny, hate messages and expectations to be available and responsive all the time has increased as social media has become part of people’s everyday life. Politicians are people too, and a stressful work environment affects their well-being like anyone else. 

The mental wellbeing of politicians is at a rather worrying level, says the recent report Mere Mortals – The State of Politicians’ Mental Wellbeing and Why It Matters by the Apolitical Foundation. The report has gathered the views and experiences of people active in politics from different parts of the world about what it is like to be politically active and how it has affected their mental wellbeing. One of the findings of the report is that the mental health of politicians is at a lower level than, for example, emergency response employees. 

Supporting mental wellbeing for the benefit of all 

In addition to the pressures and stress, the wellbeing of politicians is negatively affected by fear of violence and harassment, as well as online hate, which women and politicians belonging to minorities are more likely to face. Heavy work hours and, in some countries, insufficient remuneration also have a negative effect. Sometimes the effects extend to the family as well. It does not help that citizens often have a distorted image of politicians’ work and their salaries. Many politicians have the experience of being seen as self-interested and overpaid, and the public perception does not correspond to reality. 

The wellbeing of politicians is a matter of democracy. It is known from studies across many other professions that low mental wellbeing has a negative effect on complex problem-solving abilities, long-term thinking and creativity. Simply put, politicians who are well make better quality decisions. Also, if the toll of being active in politics is too heavy, people are deterred from participating or may decide to leave politics. This reduces the diversity of decision-making.

Despite the difficulties, the majority of politicians see working in politics as a privilege as they can serve their community.

Kimberly McArthur, COO of the Apolitical Foundation presented the Mere Mortals report at Demo Finland’s webinar on 14 February. She stated that although the low level of mental wellbeing of politicians was expected, the result was still surprising. Although it has been difficult to talk about the mental health issues of politicians, the importance of the topic has been understood with the report. 

One of the insights in the report is that, despite the difficulties, the majority of politicians see working in politics as a privilege as they can serve their community. This satisfaction has a positive influence on mental wellbeing and therefore it presents an opportunity that can be used when supporting people in politics. Most politicians wish for mentoring, training and peer support networks, which would all support their mental wellbeing. These kind of support resources can be offered, for example, by third-party organisations. 

The Mere Mortals report gives politicians recommendations on what actions they can take to have a positive impact on their and other politicians’ mental wellbeing. They can speak to their peers about mental health and also consider speaking publicly about how their work affects their mental wellbeing as well as foster the mental wellbeing of their colleagues. Political parties, on the other hand, can reduce the stigma associated with mental wellbeing in politics by organising talks or events around the topic and support politicians through mentoring, training and peer support programmes or by developing internal guidelines for politicians and members who need support. It is also important that political parties prevent and address security risks for politicians. The report also presents recommendations to the media, civil society organisations, academics and individual citizens on how to promote the wellbeing of politicians and thus better decision-making.

Opposing opinions and views are a core part of democracy, but they can be discussed and debated without being mean and disrespectful towards the other.

Member of Parliament Ville Merinen (Social Democratic Party) said in his comment in the webinar that the findings of the report sound very familiar to him when he reflects work in the Finnish Parliament. He finds working in the Parliament very inspiring, but also stressful. Mental wellbeing is discussed in the Parliament’s corridors and sauna, but it is difficult to talk about it in public. According to Merinen, the language of politics that emphasises confrontation has a particularly negative effect on mental wellbeing. This is highlighted in the plenaries of the Parliament where discussions sometimes get very disrespectful. Opposing opinions and views are of course a core part of democracy, but they can be discussed and debated without being mean and disrespectful towards the other. The participants of the webinar also found the speaking culture of politics harmful, and the feeling is shared across political party lines. 

From polarisation towards dialogue 

Among the webinar participants, there seemed to be a consensus that a respectful discussion even on controversial issues is what everyone wants. But can one win elections with it? Merinen stated that few politicians or political parties trust that an approach that emphasises dialogue and mutual respect could gain popularity in the elections, and therefore resort to polarising language. Thus, it is not only politicians but also citizens that have a role in promoting a healthier speaking culture. 

One of the cornerstones of Demo Finland’s work is supporting dialogue between political parties. We create spaces where representatives of different political parties can have a respectful discussion on even difficult topics or search for common ground. Multi-party networks and trainings are an integral part of many of our international programmes. They foster peer support and mutual learning that can have a positive impact on politicians’ wellbeing. 

For example, in Sri Lanka, most female councillors elected with the new female quota who had planned to leave politics after one term due to their negative experiences and lack of self-confidence, decided to run for office again after strengthening their skills and getting peer support in our programme’s trainings. Supporting the mental wellbeing of politicians promotes democracy as everyone needs to have a genuine opportunity to participate in politics without doing it at the expense of their own wellbeing.

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