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Politics has a mental health problem. What are we going to do about it?

It’s the highest of high-stress jobs. One of the first major players in BC politics to open up about his challenges, Emile Scheffel has some ideas to help make it better.
Pressure cooker.

I first saw a doctor about my depression in the summer of 2018.

I had left the stress and strain of my career in politics for a well-paid job in the private sector. I was physically active, seeing a counsellor, journaling every day, exploring meditation, doing all the things they tell you to do when you’re emotionally down. But nothing was working to lift the fog of sadness, hopelessness, apathy, that had enveloped me for months.

I’d been living with some degree of anxiety and sadness for most of my life – but this was different. My brain literally wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. I was struggling like never before to concentrate, focus, and link different pieces of information together. At 28 years old, I was experiencing short-term memory loss.

I wasn’t suicidal -- but for the first time in my life, I felt like I could comprehend why some people, even those who outwardly have nothing much to complain about, don’t think their lives are worth living.

I’d been living with some degree of anxiety and sadness for most of my life – but this was different.

Looking back, none of this was all that surprising. In the previous year, I had been through the pressure cooker of a provincial election campaign and then a grueling party leadership race, with a family crisis thrown in for good measure. But during all of those challenges, although my anxiety was running pretty high, it only seemed to increase my motivation, clarity, and job performance.

Until it didn’t.

The doctor prescribed me an antidepressant, and a couple of weeks later, the fog had lifted. I could focus like before, I could socialize again, and I had my sense of humour back. I was like the old me…maybe even a little better.

Then I went back to working in politics.

With a party convention, a referendum, and a by-election all coming up in a three-month period, my job as BC Liberal executive director wasn’t going to be easy. But I felt more grounded and resilient than I had in a long time, maybe ever, and I approached the grind with new confidence and clarity.

As my 29th birthday rolled around in November, I felt a pull to share my experience with depression beyond my closest friends. So I took a picture of myself holding my orange medication bottle, and posted it on social media with some reflections on what I’d been through the past year, and the tools I had used to make it better.

The social media response was overwhelmingly kind and generous. But what affected me most were the phone calls and private messages I got from friends and acquaintances struggling with the same kinds of challenges, and trying to figure out what to do about it.

These were objectively successful, high-achieving people. In many cases, I was shocked and shaken as I listened to them open up about years-long battles with anxiety, depression, trauma, and substance use challenges. And I was awed by how much they had accomplished in the face of the inner turmoil they described.

Through these conversations, and many more over the two years that have followed, I’ve come to believe that politics and public life have a profound mental health problem. And for our democracy to be healthy and effective, we need to do something about it.

I was shocked and shaken as I listened to them open up about years-long battles with anxiety, depression, trauma, and substance use challenges.

Mental health challenges associated with politics and leadership aren’t new. Marcus Aurelius made his contributions to Stoic philosophy as he navigated the emotional challenges of governing the Roman empire. Abraham Lincoln famously suffered from melancholy, and Winston Churchill wrestled his manic-depressive “black dog”. In our own time, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern has opened up about her fight with imposter syndrome, and Ontario cabinet minister Lisa McLeod has courageously shared her experience with depression.

These struggles didn’t necessarily originate from politics, but I bet politics didn’t help -- and research is beginning to bear that out.

Harvard social scientist Arthur Brooks used 2014 survey data to find that people who self-identified as “very interested in politics” were roughly 8 per cent more likely to describe themselves as “not very happy” compared to the politically disinterested. He recommends that to protect their mental health, citizens ration their consumption of political information, and limit the time they spend discussing it. When politics is your job, this advice is tough to follow.

A 2019 study found that “large numbers of Americans are convinced that politics is exacting significant social, psychological and even physical costs on their well-being.” Since then, politics has only become more polarizing, as participants spend more time engaged in social media combat with their ideological foes. There’s no reason to believe Canadians are immune to this disease.

Our governments, legislatures, political parties, and public affairs sector -- the institutions responsible for translating the democratic process into progress -- are mostly staffed by driven, capable, idealistic people who want to make their community, province, and country better.

But these same people operate in an environment too often defined by stress, anxiety, and toxic levels of conflict and partisanship.

They work extremely hard, don’t get enough rest, and do jobs that are inherently combative.

And unfortunately, politics lags far behind other sectors and professions when it comes to having open, honest conversations about mental health -- and building the support systems to match.

No wonder we have a public deeply cynical about politics, troubled work environments in many legislatures, and, at least anecdotally, an epidemic of mental health challenges among elected officials and their staff.

These same people operate in an environment too often defined by stress, anxiety, and toxic levels of conflict and partisanship.

If this problem isn’t taken seriously in the political space, how can we expect governments to adequately address the growing mental health crisis in our broader society?

And does it have to be this way?

Democratic politics will always involve disagreement, competition, and conflict -- because the stakes are high, and the outcomes matter.

But most of the people who work in politics and public life are idealistic, caring, and community-minded. They chose this line of work because they want to make a positive difference.

It’s time for a broad conversation about how we can change culture, raise expectations, and build support systems that improve mental health and wellness in our political institutions -- so they can lead by example, not lag behind.

I have a few ideas.

First, more political participants of all stripes, at all levels, need to share their stories and contribute to eliminating the stigma that keeps people from getting better.

Second, we have to create spaces where people in politics and public life can share their own best practices for mental wellness and resilience with each other -- so nobody has to face this fight alone.

Third, our legislatures, city halls, parties, and other political employers need to support the mental health of the people that work in them -- with rules where they’re needed, but most of all with culture change that sets clear expectations for how people treat each other, within and across partisan lines.

I’m certain we can do better, and we owe it to ourselves to try. Because this problem affects everybody in and around politics, their families, and everybody who depends on the democratic process.

Which is, well, everybody.

Emile Scheffel is a former executive director of the BC Liberal Party and staffer to BC’s Premier and Minister of Health. A graduate of the Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management at Carleton University, he is now a public affairs consultant with Prospectus Associates.