Mental Health in Politics: Creating Healthier Spaces for Change-makers

January 18, 2024
From contending with your ranting uncle at the holiday dinner table, to doomscrolling social media, to the polarization and vitriol that has crept into civic life and discourse, political participation is not for the faint of heart. And for those who have or seek a career in politics, 24/7 schedules, public scrutiny, and the risk of verbal and even physical violence make the work environment not just unappealing but also often mentally and physically unhealthy. This, ultimately, weakens our democracies.

“It is getting tougher and tougher to recruit people to run for office and engage in the political process, and it's getting harder and harder to retain good people in politics,” said Jordan Simmons, co-founder and CEO of Nominee, an organization that works across North America to empower people, particularly from underrepresented and marginalized communities, to run for office and make a difference in our communities.

Jordan recently teamed up with Jacqueline Sultan, Director of Communications & Strategic Engagement for Apathy is Boring, and CMHA Toronto for an event called Mental Health and Politics, held on November 25, 2023 at Toronto Metropolitan University. Similar to Nominee, Apathy is Boring is a nonpartisan non-profit whose mission is to engage Canadians, especially youth, to be active participants in the democratic system.

SHINING A SPOTLIGHT ON MENTAL HEALTH IN POLITICS

Both Jordan and Jacqueline realized that, to be fully effective, their organizations needed to confront the toll that participation in democratic processes and social change-making can take on the mental health of those involved.

“We work with youth from various backgrounds and with various experiences in activism or in politics, and one common denominator that always comes up is how we deal with mental health,” Jacqueline said. Through their RISE program, which runs training events in seven cities across Canada, “we regularly have up to 100 people at a time together who are extremely concerned about how their mental health will be affected or what kind of impact their mental health will have on their ability to make change,” she said.

These common experiences and the growing recognition of how pervasive and detrimental mental health issues are to people in political spaces led Jordan and Jacqueline to want to shine a light on the topic and provide people with some concrete support.

If we are to change what politics looks like for the 21st century, we can't do that without addressing how we create safe, healthy, productive, sustainable work environments for political leaders and staff.
JORDAN SIMMONS, CO-FOUNDER AND CEO, NOMINEE

BREAKING THE SILENCE ON A TABOO TOPIC IN POLITICAL SPACES

“We wanted to do something to elevate the conversation around mental health in politics,” said Jordan. “We know that there is a significant stigma associated with mental health, especially amongst elected officials, where disclosing any challenges you may be facing with your own mental health can pose a real risk. We've seen examples of politicians being attacked for it, having the issue brought up in their election campaigns. So there's a significant risk in having these conversations in political spaces.”

Jordan cited a recent global survey by the Apolitical Foundation of elected officials at all levels of government where more than 40 per cent rated their own mental health and well-being as low or very low, and another study by the University of Sussex that found that two-thirds of politicians in the UK were dealing with mental health challenges.

Yet, despite the high incidence of mental health concerns among politicians, and likely because of the potential political repercussions, “nobody was really willing to talk about it,” said Jordan. “Five years ago an event about mental health and politics could not have happened. We were in a very different place in the dialogue.”

COURAGEOUS LEADERSHIP IN THE OPEN

Increasingly, though, prominent politicians are revealing their own struggles with mental health. “I think of Jacinda Ardern [former Prime Minister of New Zealand] and Nicola Sturgeon [former First Minister of Scotland], who both spoke eloquently and publicly about the stressors that they faced during their time in office and how that factored into their decision to resign,” Jordan said. “I'm encouraged by people like Mark Holland, Canada’s current Minister of Health, who spoke openly about his struggles with depression after losing his seat in 2011. I think of [former MP] Celina Caesar-Chavannes who has spoken about her experiences with depression and the unique stressors on her as a Black woman in politics,” he added.

Jacqueline explained that many people involved in social movements and politics “were having these conversations behind closed doors, between good friends or maybe family members. There may have been some shame around that.” She and her colleagues realized that they would not be able to have much impact when they weren't explicitly sharing their feelings and normalizing them in a more public way.

“As we were planning for the event, we wanted to be very clear and intentional about making it about mental health issues. They are real, they are happening, and we didn’t want to minimize them but rather put it out there and break the taboo about talking about it,” she said.

We took that shame and threw it out the window and it became empowerment. It became about how we are going to collectively hear one another out and not let these types of normal physical and mental reactions prevent us from changing the world.
JACQUELINE SULTAN, DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS & STRATEGIC ENGAGEMENT, APATHY IS BORING

CALLING ON CMHA TORONTO’S EXPERTISE

Once the idea of an event centred on the topic of mental health and politics started to take shape, Jacqueline and Jordan realized that they would need to invite experts on mental health to the table.

“We are the quote-unquote experts on how to get into the political sphere, but we're definitely not the experts on mental health. It would be irresponsible for us to take on such a big conversation without having the expert in that field,” said Jacqueline.

That’s when Jennifer Bertram, CMHA Toronto’s Program Manager for Mental Health Promotion and Training, got a call. “My program at CMHA Toronto is around the promotion piece of mental health awareness in our community. For me it was an incredible opportunity to sit in front of people in the political realm and have access to educate those folks around the importance of mental health and why it needs to be talked about, not just friend to friend, but at a higher level as well,” Jennifer said.

Former federal cabinet minister Maryam Monsef during a lively panel discussion.

The alignment between the three organizations quickly became clear. It was important to everyone that people get the opportunity to share their experiences and learn about mental health, and that they leave the event with “takeaways and tangible tools that they can leverage,” said Jacqueline.

“We wanted to offer folks that validation that it can be really stressful working in the political sphere and give them practical tools to manage their own mental health,” said Jennifer, adding that the bigger picture is to ensure that people involved in politics can further a public dialogue about mental health.

Jennifer believes that it is vital for people in politics to understand how caring for their own mental health serves the public good. Political leaders “have to take care of themselves in order to take care of those they are representing. No matter where they are in politics, whether it's in their own community or all the way up to Ottawa, if they're not self-aware of their own needs then it's going to be challenging to support the rest of us.”

It is about education, but also promoting the importance of a public dialogue about mental health with the hope that political leaders will bring that back to their communities and continue to engage in those conversations.
JENNIFER BERTRAM, PROGRAM MANAGER, MENTAL HEALTH PROMOTION AND TRAINING, CMHA TORONTO

“IT’S OKAY TO TALK ABOUT IT”

Caption: Former Deputy Premier of Ontario George Smitherman makes a point. (Also shown L to R: panelist Dr. Laura Mae Lindo, moderator Faith Justice Betty; panelist Habon Ali.)

The Mental Health and Politics event included a panel with Maryam Monsef, former Member of Parliament and federal cabinet minister; George Smitherman, former Member of Provincial Parliament and Ontario cabinet minister; Dr. Laura Mae Lindo, activist, educator, academic, former Member of Provincial Parliament, Official Opposition Critic for Anti-Racism and Equity, and the inaugural Chair of Ontario’s first Black Caucus; and Habon Ali, specialist in global health, advisor to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the creation of Canada’s first National Youth Policy and developing Canada's Service Corps, and strategic advisor to the Future of Canada Project at McMaster University.

The panel was moderated by Justice Faith Betty, the co-creator of Révolutionnaire, an organization that celebrates diversity and empowers individuals to use their dreams to fuel revolutions through content, commerce, and community, and an activist with a lifelong commitment to advocacy and youth engagement. Justice is also past co-chair of the City of Toronto’s Anti-Black Racism Advisory Committee.

The panel discussed their own mental health challenges and how they were affected in their various roles in politics, answering questions and engaging in a dialogue with approximately 60 attendees and another 100 via live stream.

CMHA Toronto’s Rayhan Hossain, RP, delivered mental health awareness and practical tools tailored for those in politics.

“Folks came up to me and said how important and enlightening the conversation was for them to feel like they're not alone, that this is something that other folks in politics feel as well. We had a broad spectrum of folks from youth and students to political staffers working in Ottawa and Queen's Park, to elected officials. It was really powerful to have panelists talk about their experience. That goes a long way to show that it's okay to talk about it, and that there are tools and support and resources available to help you get through it. There's a community that will be there alongside of you,” said Jordan.

Following the panel, Rayhan Hossain, RP, a therapist with CMHA Toronto, held a workshop that introduced a toolkit for mental health and wellness specifically targeted to those in politics.

TANGIBLE RESOURCES TO KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING

The toolkit has since been formalized and was published on Monday, January 15 – or “Blue Monday,” often regarded as the most depressing day of the year and associated with feelings of sadness, low motivation, and a lack of energy. The toolkit offers specific reflection exercises, tips and techniques to help people manage the stress and burn-out characteristic of public service careers.

“A lot of managing our stress levels is about boundary setting,” said Jennifer. The kit includes an acronym – CLEAR – that serves as a handy reminder of ways to establish boundaries at work, a resource guide with national hotlines such as the new 988 suicide line and the Wellness Canada number, and an action plan template that lets peopleidentify their self-care goal and the steps they can take to achieve it.

The toolkit is available on CMHA Toronto’s website is being promoted widely on social media and through Apathy is Boring’s weekly newsletter, The Feed. Apathy is Boring and Nominee are making the toolkit a standard resource in their activities going forward.

Apathy is Boring’s collaboration with CMHA Toronto was so appreciated that Jacqueline has already reached out to Jennifer to explore the idea of a more established partnership. “I've really enjoyed working with Jordan and Jacqueline and both of their teams. Moving forward, CMHA Toronto is very interested in supporting both organizations in other events,” said Jennifer, adding that the opportunity to blend the three organizations’ respective areas of expertise is a unique one that holds great promise for advancing the public dialogue around mental health.

From Jordan’s perspective, “this is the first step in a much longer process, to continue to elevate the discussion and validate the feelings that mental health issues are prevalent and something that all of us are facing together. The next step is to keep having these conversations at every level of government to show that this is something that needs to be addressed, and to come up with specific policies to improve workplace safety and create healthy workplaces at every level of government, both for elected officials and for staff. We want to keep building on this conversation to help people connect with the tools and support and also to keep raising awareness of the issue. It's a starting point for us rather than a finish point.”

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