Politicians, the internet and mental health

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 3 May 2012 in News
The openness and personal connection that social media platforms facilitate with our politicians could do a lot to reduce stigma about mental health

We value ‘real life’ experience from our MPs, or like we think we do, as my colleague Caroline Crampton rightly pointed out when launching this fantastic initiative. Depression is a real life experience for nearly a quarter of people in this country, yet we hardly hear of MPs referring to the day(s) that they just couldn’t face getting out of bed. Or felt that they never wanted to get out of bed again.

Even my basic grasp of statistics tells me that  if cases of mental illness in the Commons do indeed match those of us commoners, 164 MPs have suffered from anxiety, depression or similar. To give the size of this some perspective, that’s over two and half times the number of Lib Dems MPs that there currently are.

No wonder society finds the issue so hard to deal with, when those seen in so many ways as guiding it feel unwilling or unable to share their own experiences. Mental illness is simply seen as a weakness, the strength to deal with the illness not embraced and praised in the same way we rightly do for someone recovering from a physical illness. More than that, it is seen as discrediting the judgement of an individual, something that is fatal to a political career. This misguided view makes it much more, not less, important that politicians discuss their own personal battles.

In a society growing ever more connected by technology that has never been easier. Twitter, Facebook, and emails allow us to have a much more  of personal connection to our MPs, we know them far better than we ever did. I’m not saying that MPs should live blog their therapy sessions, but perhaps a little more honest discussion and reference to their personal plights would help us all feel that mental illness was such an insurmountable obstacle.

You see, here is the secret nobody tells you. Most people that suffer from mental illness are not useless, ineloquent, no-marks, but instead high functioning, high achieving, highly admirable individuals. 

Take fellow TP contributor Sadie Smith for example. She is extremely intelligent, a fantastic writer, and in a great job. Now read her moving recital of her own personal battle. Suddenly it doesn’t seem so scary anymore, does it?

Professor Jeff Jarvis explains in his book Public Parts how more sharing, and the ease with which the internet allows us to achieve this, is very helpful in confronting a variety of difficulties. Early on he discusses how greater levels of publicness allow us to bust myths of perfection and counter stigma. The theory applies perfectly to politics and mental health.

Rest assured, I am not demanding that MPs dredge out into the open every aspect of their personalities. These are still sensitive personal issues we are dealing with, but more openness from such high achievers will mean that mental health will go from being a taboo to something we can deal with. You can have a mental illness, seek the help you deserve, and still continue to have the career and life you aspire to.

In the web 2.0 age we no longer need confessional press conferences and reflective features in the Sunday papers – MPs could end this taboo in just 140 characters...

Read more contributions to TP's mental health week here

Tags: Anxiety, Depression, Tony Blair, TP mental health week

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