Members of parliament seldom attract much sympathy. They're well paid, have alternative employment options and most of us think we could do their job a lot better than them. Nevertheless, one study suggests life as a politician may take a serious toll, at least in the UK, leading to an unaddressed crisis of depression and anxiety.
In December 2016, Kings College London PhD student Nicole Votruba sent an anonymous 12-question online survey to all 650 members of the House of Commons. Less than one in four responded, so those who did may represent a skewed sample. If that's not the case, however, something was going seriously wrong in the halls of power. The same results today might be blamed on the nightmare negotiations that Brexit has become, but the timing makes it more likely this is an ongoing problem other countries may also be experiencing.
Overall, Votruba reports in BMJ Open, under the self-confident personas they project MPs are more likely to feel depressed, worthless or just generally unhappy than the general population. A third of MPs met criteria for common mental disorders, compared to a quarter of the English population (based on the annual Health Survey for England) and 17 percent of those of similar age, sex, and income. Among women MPs, it was 41 percent.
Some may say those suffering in this way should just quit – after all plenty of other people want their job. However, eliminating people who suffer from depression from the pool of potential parliamentarians would make government less representative and possibly lower in creativity and empathy as well. The findings in regard to female MPs are particularly alarming in this regard.
Today enlightened workplaces offer support and treatment to struggling employees rather than casting them aside. Politicians who have been through mental health crises and come out the other side might be just what a nation needs – having exceptional insight into the needs of their most vulnerable constituents.
For this to work, however, MPs need to know these resources are available. More than three-quarters of respondents did not know how to access the Parliamentary Health and Wellbeing Service, the body designed to look after their mental and physical health.
Half of those who responded, particularly those most at risk, indicated they would not feel comfortable disclosing their troubles to other MPs. The competitive nature of politics makes this unsurprising, but it represents a major obstacle, both to improving the health of individual parliamentarians and to familiarizing colleagues with the extent of the national mental health crisis in a way that might benefit everyone.
The authors note their study doesn't indicate the extent to which the stresses of public office caused these problems. There were no questions about how respondents mental health compared prior to their election, so it is possible the problems predate getting elected.