This Mental Health Awareness Week and beyond, remember to say ‘no’ once in a while

For this year’s stress-themed Mental Health Awareness Week, I wanted to write about my experiences with mental health and campaigning and some of the lessons I’ve learned. Hopefully, some of it is useful for others in the party. 

To start off, I think it’s fair to say that most Liberal Democrat activists are campaigning for love, not money. 

That description certainly applies to me. I’m one of those people who loves to get out and knock on doors, man the phones, and rush through last-minute print runs. Politics is exciting, and a great doorstop conversation is almost as sweet as the first beer at the end of the day. 

And that makes the one-month deferral of the election in one of Southwark’s council wards something of a treat for me – after all, who doesn’t want to fight a very winnable by-election in the sun?

However, the extension is a bit of double-edged sword on a personal level. I say that because, several times in the last year, despite how much I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve had to slow down and step back from the campaign. Partly, that’s because I wanted to focus on looking for a new job, but equally it’s because I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things I’d volunteered to do. 

In short, I’ve come to appreciate that I need to occasionally say ‘no’ and put my wellbeing first. 

This is a lesson I think many activists could do with learning. It’s taken me a while to crack. Back in 2014, I got a job as Constituency Organiser in Eastleigh, a bastion of Liberal Democrat campaigning. I wasn’t, in truth, the strongest addition to the team, lacking in experience and parachuted into a well-established operation with less than a year to go. 

This wasn’t exactly ideal, and I can’t say it did wonders for my mental health. I’m grateful to Rachel Palma Randle, who appropriately is now the party’s Director of People, for scooping me up after a serious wobble and making sure I got the support needed to make it through the campaign.

Looking back, what I lacked – in addition to a clue about how to do the job – was an appreciation of how to work smart, when to ask for help, and when to say ‘no’ to things that ultimately weren’t a priority. 

Fortunately, I survived the election, and I learned how to become better at managing my time in subsequent jobs. But when it comes to campaigning, all too often I still say ‘yes’ to things I don’t really need to. Whether it’s the ego boost of leading another canvass team, or the tempting offer of joining another strategy meeting, by saying ‘yes’ to every request I’m putting myself at risk of building up more and more stress, burning out, and finally having to row back. 

Only in the last few months have I really started getting the balance right. 

I’m not saying that you should say ‘no’ to everything. Campaigns are hard work, and need an army of volunteers all playing their part. But it’s important to remember that you needn’t say ‘yes’ to everything asked of you. Fundamentally, there should be someone else who can pick up the slack, and no-one in our party will begrudge you prioritising mental health.

My top tip? Figure out an activity level you can comfortably sustain, without sacrificing other parts of your life, and make sure those leading the campaign know your boundaries. And make sure you identify at least one campaign activity you can say ‘no’ to on a regular basis (for me, it was monthly party meetings!). 

I guarantee you’ll enjoy yourself much more – and be a better campaigner – if you can find your way to striking this balance.

PS If you don’t plan to follow this advice, at least until the summer, you could instead come help us win three more seats in the London Bridge & West Bermondsey election taking place Thursday 14th June. We’ve got canvassing, delivery and phoning – and it’s all got to be shared around.

* Matt campaigns with the Southwark Liberal Democrats and was Eastleigh’s Constituency Organiser in 2015. He tweets about politics, mental health and social care @MattDolman.

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  • Laurence Cox 18th May '18 - 1:26pm

    It is very easy for dedicated campaigners to try to do too much, which is why having someone else to to help you prioritise and say no to some requests is so important. In my case it was John Miller at an ALDC weekend whom I have to thank for diagnosing my incipient signs of councillor burnout and giving me similar advice. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  • Helen Dudden 22nd May '18 - 8:25am

    We do get tired, and need that break. I know with my grandchild.

  • Humaira Ali 23rd Sep '18 - 9:33pm

    Matt you were and are phenomenal and you were one of the main reasons Damian, William and I got elected. And you are absolutely right about managing things at sustainable levels. It’s so easy to get drawn into the excitement and before you know it you’re burning the candle at both ends and the love you have for things can drain…fast.

    There are many in the party who are awesome and we will keep asking you all whether you’d like to participate in things. No is as valid an answer as yes. We’ll keep asking though – not to pressure you but because we value you. As long as people do manage the viability of doing stuff…then all should/could/would be well.

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