Mental Health Stigma and Politics: Not Even Canada Gets It Right
At this point in history, we are in the middle of a commendable conversation about diversity and inclusivity in politics. However, those with a mental health history are frequently overlooked in these discussions.
Mental Health in Politics
This past July, the media reacted in horror to a cartoon in the Toronto Star which depicted a politician with a known mental health history in a straitjacket, for which the Toronto Star issued an apology. Society has accepted that it is reprehensible to joke about someone’s physical abilities or health issues, however this cartoon proves that more needs to be done when it comes to people with a mental health history.
It is considered normal in political work and in political discourse to speak disparagingly of your opponent’s mental state and it is normal to claim someone in politics should lose their job due to their mental state instead of seek treatment. This fosters a very hostile and exclusionary environment. For example, populist extremist politician Maxime Bernier ignited controversy by referring to climate change activist Greta Thunberg as mentally unstable in a bid to undermine her growing popularity. Another ugly example is this headline by beloved New Yorker satire comedian Andy Borowitz: “Mexico Agrees to Pay for Trump’s Psychiatric Care.”
This obsessive focus on pop psychology distracts from tangible criticisms of the White House or other political figures. Laugh it up, but that reaction hurts a lot of people. It is certainly hard to hear for someone with a mental health history that someone can feel “outraged” that a politician is mentally ill instead of outraged about their actions or political affiliations. This plays into the narrative that the root of antisocial behavior is in mental illness and not in less convenient explanations like greed, predatory behavior or bigotry.
Serious dialogue about mental health in politics has just begun. However, that dialogue has not gone far enough and has not yet reached a global audience. Part of this process should be creating a more positive narrative surrounding mental health issues. Greater representation of public figures with a mental health history is necessary to fight stigma. A person with a mental health history faces sometimes insurmountable stigma if they wish to enter a political career, even if they are actively engaging in treatment. A Lebanese-Canadian tech entrepreneur source with a Canadian military background told the authors, it is normal to “not be given the benefit of the doubt” in the workplace or to be condescended to or treated different from peers, especially if you are still early in your career. It is also normal to hear peers say that the mentally ill should be kept out of public office (instances of which were also related to the authors by separate sources). Professionals with a mental health history can even face disbelief for the extent of their accomplishments.
This has to change, and with increased representation, at-risk youth will have role models in fields historically lacking representation. It is also crucial to listen to colleagues and peers with a mental health background when they discuss workplace barriers.
Mental Health in Foreign Affairs
This issue has received new interest in US foreign policy as well. Many veterans who return from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of these veterans entered into politics, breaking new ground in the de-stigmatization of mental health issues. Furthermore, in 2015, the BBC published a groundbreaking article on the CIA’s new openness to hiring people with disabilities. Additionally, a source involved with the recruiting process at the US National Security Agency (NSA) said that applicants with mental health histories are considered eligible for an NSA career as long as the applicants are seeking treatment.
Political parties in the US and Canada would be wise to take a hard look at how they hire staffers and policy advisors as they raise the next generation of their public representation. It is these young professionals who will be tomorrow’s elected officials. A public commitment by all political parties to bring neurodiversity into the public eye is the only credible step to destigmatize mental health in politics.
Additionally, while there has been progress behind the scenes more can be done about what is considered acceptable language to use in a workplace setting. It is already office policy in every workplace that sexist, racist, or homophobic language is not allowed. Similarly, ableist slurs and ableist comments should be discouraged in political discussions.
As role models for promising and ambitious young people, foreign policy and politics professionals should represent the populations they serve. Greater visibility would undermine the stigmas surrounding mental health issues.
Jay Heisler is a freelance journalist published with CNBC and is working on a book contract for the Association of the United States Army and Naval Institute Press. He is a longtime staffer with Washington DC-based Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and currently works in Halifax for Dalhousie University.
Minzhou Sun is a Registered Professional Counselor and Associate Addiction Counselor. She runs Bright Sun Counselling Services in Halifax and works full time in counselling and mental health research.