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OPINIONPoliticsJanuary 24, 2024

Cranking out the same old mental health platitudes is getting us nowhere

Am image of the Beehive surounded in grey clouds
Image: Tina Tiller

Nearly four years after Todd Muller’s exit as National Party leader, it’s clear that congratulating ourselves on talking about mental health isn’t enough.

In recent years, when politicians have cited mental health as a factor in their public “falls from grace”, the handle is cranked on another round of calls to “do something”. Headlines call for more “mental health support”. Mental health advocates and experts dutifully provide comment. I imagine many also want to bang their heads against a wall.

This happened after Todd Muller’s exit as National Party leader and the events that led to Kiri Allan’s resignation last year. The handle has been cranked again after Green MP Golriz Ghahraman’s resignation statement. The Francis report has been cited, and a committee is said to be doing something. There is fair questioning about accountability. Expressions of support collide with inhumane comments on social media and filling column inches. 

Driven by a “there but by the grace of God go I (and the party)” instinct, or codified collegiality and compassion rarely seen from the outside, politicians usually respond with restraint when one of their own makes these kinds of statements.

Ghahraman cited her mental health as an explanation for her behaviour, not an excuse. It’s fair to note plenty of people live with mental illness and don’t commit crimes, while also acknowledging that it’s pointless to speculate on the veracity of the explanation. Your lived experience is not hers. The fact we’re even discussing a person’s mental health in this way in public is because we live in a democracy where wrongdoing by politicians is often found out, and public accountability is required. 

None of this will advance action on improving the mental health of politicians or the broader population. All it offers is an example of one of the primary sources of stress for those in the public eye and a round of debates about culpability and privilege. 

For every drop of sympathy given because of the specificities of MPs’ work, a point is taken away because, unlike many other hard-working New Zealanders, they are paid quite well and have support staff. For every argument suggesting something might be wrong with “the system”, particularly for certain people, whataboutisms emerge. Where we might pause to think about the reasons being mentally well is easier or harder for MPs as heightened examples of what we all go through or need, an exceptionalism card is played, and platitudes are offered. 

Prime minister Christopher Luxon and new minister for mental health Matt Doocey were pressed for their reactions to Ghahraman’s statement last week. Doocey said: “We need to do better about how we address… the stress in all work environments.” That sounds good, but what does it mean? 

Greens MP Golriz Ghahraman speaking to reporters at parliament in 2021 (Photo: Alex Braae)

Luxon acknowledged abuse was worse for women. That sounds good too, but unless the new government plans on breaking the internet so people can’t spew vile comments directly at people 24/7, what will change? 

Police minister Mark Mitchell also offered up “exercise and a good diet” as a way of looking after your mental health. That’s true, but more on that later.

The same day, Luxon also said ministers had been taking briefings until midnight since entering government, and his MPs “had training at 7am to ensure they were creating a supportive culture”. Midnight briefings and 7am supportive culture workshops might go with the territory, but they also sound like a schedule that robs people of the time they need to do Mitchell’s recommended exercise. 

“If you’re going to build world-class high-performance teams, you have to make sure you create the culture that actually enables people to be their whole selves at work, but importantly work with others in that team as well,” Luxon said. Bringing your whole self to work is a notion popularised by TED talker and corporate consultant Mike Robbins. I prefer bringing my work self to work, but a generous read of that concept is that it creates room for vulnerability, fallibility and mistakes. That isn’t a luxury afforded to politicians, for whom public failure is part of how they’re held to account. The falls will always be from great heights. They will always be public, and in some instances, given the tabloid treatment. Nothing about that is conducive to diminishing shame and anxiety.

Luxon’s corporate jingoisms are often derided, but corporate leaders receive far more leadership education than politicians. There are libraries full of books on the subject. As far as I am aware, very few books exist on how to be a good and well politician. Aspects can be cribbed from other areas, but the manual seems contingent on winging it and mentoring from others who’ve hopefully figured things out.  

Christopher Luxon at government house
Christopher Luxon (Photo: Marty Melville / AFP via Getty Images)

Mitchell is right about diet and exercise, to an extent. After 20-something years and bouts of depression, I have accepted the dull truth that “lifestyle” is the key for me. I drag myself to the gym not because I love it but because it makes me a functional and well person. Critics could argue the “diet and exercise” line has a neoliberalism chime, centring individual actions in the face of substantial structural barriers like a lack of time and money. I can do what I do because I have always worked in white-collar, professional jobs where work isn’t connected to minute-by-minute productivity and profit metrics.

Economic and social determinants of mental health aren’t made-up, liberal ideas. They’re fundamental. If you can’t afford to eat well and work 15 hours a day plus a commute, life is harder. If you want to reframe it ideologically, a more productive economy does the trick. Less time spent working for more money equals more time to do stupid mental health workouts. 

Doocey correctly but vaguely points to collective responsibility while ensuring the “poor old politician” violin isn’t playing too loudly. It flattens any context. If we remain afraid of acknowledging the specificities of a politician’s job or anyone’s circumstances, we will remain wedded to the idea of a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone’s mental health. It won’t work for MPs, and it won’t work for the people who present interconnected but uniquely configured problems in the health, education, social welfare and justice systems. 

A close reading of comments made in haste to the media perhaps isn’t fair, and politicians of all stripes have made similarly bland noises over the years. But unless you’re actively scratching the surface, they’re often all we hear. These recent comments frustratingly hint at what is known but not acted on at a scale that would make a difference. The biggest frustration is they come from people who are in a position to drive change for themselves, their colleagues and the country. 

If we don’t hear better things or see better examples from our politicians, we’ll keep congratulating ourselves for just “talking about it”, and talking about it is getting us nowhere. We’ve been doing this and more for a very long time. The canonical report of the 2010s on mental health in Aotearoa, He Ara Oranga, is now seven years old. The last government spent $2bn on mental health, and late last year, the warning came back that ongoing systemic workforce shortages put the plan attached to that funding at risk. Workforce shortages within the sector date back decades.

In a few days, we’ll all stop “talking about it” until another mental health issue hits the headlines. An advocate or expert will dutifully provide comment and return to banging their head against a wall or, for variety, the stack of neglected reports that all provide prescriptions for what ails us, if only we could crank the handle on those.

Keep going!