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Kiri Allan in 2020 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images; design Archi Banal)
Kiri Allan in 2020 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images; design Archi Banal)

OPINIONPoliticsJuly 26, 2023

What we can learn from the response to Kiri Allan’s exit

Kiri Allan in 2020 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images; design Archi Banal)
Kiri Allan in 2020 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images; design Archi Banal)

Figuring out how to respond to a person’s actions in the context of their mental state can be difficult, but empathy and accountability should go hand in hand, writes Mental Health Foundation CEO Shaun Robinson. 

Empathy and accountability should go hand in hand as we respond to the very difficult events surrounding Kiri Allan. Her car accident, arrest and resignation as a cabinet minister has been enmeshed with references to her mental health and distress. It has exposed difficulties New Zealanders have talking about mental health and responding to a person’s actions in the context of their mental state. There is confusion, stigma and empathy mashed into the public story. There are lessons to learn. As the CEO of the Mental Health Foundation and someone who lives with bipolar disorder, here are my whakaaro.

Kiri Allan has been in an extremely high-stress job, and she has recently faced big personal challenges – all in the public spotlight. Anybody in that situation would experience considerable stress, mental distress and a time of poor mental health. This is part of being human and a natural reaction to life challenges – we mustn’t pathologise normal emotional responses. In fact, over 80% of us will experience a period of significant mental distress through the course of our lives, many due to life events. And when anyone is going through a tough time like that, they need our empathy and support, and sometimes they will need formal mental health services. If we are honest, all of us are affected at some point.

But that support and empathy does not excuse Allan for her actions. It is right that she resigned as minister of justice and that she faces legal consequences. We can have compassion and provide support and still hold her to a high standard of behaviour. Not holding Allan accountable is in fact stigmatising mental distress – especially for people who manage long-term mental illness. As a CEO I would be devastated if I made a mistake and people let me off because of my bipolar – it would be saying “we can’t expect high performance of him because he has mental health issues”. No. When I make mistakes it’s because I’m human and fallible, not because my mental health makes me a less able person. I, and anyone else with mental health issues, can still be highly productive. 

Kiri Allan is a high performer who had an impressive week prior to Sunday night, at the same time as continuing to manage the challenges of her mental and emotional situation. It is quite possible to do both. She has made some mistakes and she is taking the consequences for those mistakes. That’s fair, and now the focus should be on her wellbeing.  

Kiri Allan in January 2023
Kiri Allan in January 2023 (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Did Allan come back to work too soon? There is no right or wrong answer to that. Everyone will have times when they are not mentally and emotionally at their best and what we need at those times will vary. Work can be a helpful anchor that supports our recovery, provided the stress is well managed. 

When to engage with work can be a hard judgment call for the individual and for their boss. But you can’t take that judgment call away by kicking the decision to clinicians – not in the vast majority of situations. Suggesting clinicians should have the sign-off is stigmatising and dehumanising and not what people need – it’s saying if you’re going through a tough time, you’re too broken to make decisions for yourself. Rubbish. In every workplace, in every school and every whānau there are people experiencing mental distress. Life is messy, many decisions are hard and sometimes we all make mistakes – you can’t take that risk away by applying a medical model to emotions and giving the power to some expert in a “white coat”. What we all need is compassion from each other, support where we work, play, learn and live, and sometimes, clinical input.

If clinical sign-off was applied to all politicians as National leader Christopher Luxon suggests, I suspect parliament would be half empty half the time – because politicians are human too. His comments are a sad and ill-informed weaponising of Ms Allan’s distress for political gain. They reflect disturbing and outdated bio-medical thinking. Not what we need to set the tone when addressing Aotearoa New Zealand’s mental health response.

Kiri Allan could come back. She clearly has talent. A time of mental distress or of mental ill-health does not define us forever. If it did, 80% of us would be write-offs and our society would have ground to a halt. People who go through tough times, including mental illness, can recover and continue to be highly successful and positive contributors to their work, their whānau and their community. That is the truth and the mindset we need to address the mental health of New Zealanders.

Keep going!