When it comes to mental health, all’s fair in love and leafleting

We all feel it. Brexit is a battleground. It’s muddy trenches that stink to high heaven whichever side of it you’re on, and like sticky quicksand it’s near impossible to escape.

What’s more, the confrontational atmosphere is contributing to a mental health crisis in our political system, one that needs addressing fast.

For someone used to running fast-paced action days and writing punchy election literature, sometimes it can be hard not to view politics like a war. Elections become a battle of attrition. Your opponent is your enemy. Your leaflets are your ammunition. Your voters are a vital resource you must fight to defend.

That can be a helpful approach, for a day or two. But mostly, it’s unhealthy, and leads to entrenched and tribal politics that does no-one any good – the type of thinking we’re seeing a lot of today.

I was delivering for a local by-election recently and came across a Labour activist weighed down heavily with literature. She was struggling to enter an imposing block, one which I needed to get through as well, and we stopped to chat.

It was obvious she was weary. She’d been out much of the day. We talked about how the campaign had been going, and I gave her a sip of water and a couple of tips on getting past that intercom buzzer and into stubborn blocks. Then, after a quick joke about not wishing each other too much luck, we parted ways.

Later, I thought back to that lonely Labour activist. I was just a visitor to the campaign, but she had been out for weeks. Despite our different political persuasions, I felt empathy for her, and the mental and physical strain the campaign must have been having.

It got me thinking that, for many of us, this strain is only getting worse.

We know Brexit is affecting mental health in politics. A recent episode of the Times Red Box podcast interviewed MPs and staffers to reveal the scale of the strain they’re under. It’s been reported that Mind is issuing wellbeing advice to those who work in Westminster.

I’ve written before about mental health amid a tough election campaign, and we all know people in politics who have dealt admirably with things like panic attacks at work or the impact of poor mental health on their wider wellbeing.

But the seemingly unending upheaval of the Brexit debate and the confrontation and caricature it brings is something else.

As for a solution, there’s hope of an armistice yet. Generally, Britain is improving in attitudes to mental health support. We’ve made progress on mental health at work, more people are learning mental health first aid, and organisations like the Mental Health Foundation offer brilliant resources that anyone can use to support themselves or others.

Campaigners on different sides of the divide can do their bit by respecting and supporting each other. We must avoid seeing politics as a battle to be won.

As the party’s recent local election broadcast highlights, we’re a divided nation. If one thing to come out of Brexit is an acknowledgement that campaigners can and should have empathy for each other, at least it won’t all have been for nothing.

* 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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  • @David Raw

    Seems we cannot respond [email protected] Barker, at least I shouldn’t feel singled out as a brexiter

  • Dilettante Eye 15th Apr '19 - 8:37pm

    “Brexiteers have murdered people in cold blood, they deluge Remain supporters with threats of Death & Rape,…”

    Good grief !

    Has LDV finally lost all rationality?

  • Dilettante Eye 15th Apr '19 - 11:12pm

    David Raw

    I’m not sure how flying a flag in respect and pride of your nation and wishing the best for our fellow citizens comes close to,.. cold blooded murder or Death & Rape, but I defer to your better judgement on this matter.

    All I know, is at some point 30 years ago, we could vote to hire and fire the folks who made our laws, and I simply want to get back to that state of national democracy.

  • Paul Barker 15th Apr ’19 – 6:40pm…………….Brexiteers have murdered people in cold blood, they deluge Remain supporters with threats of Death & Rape, they leave objects on Train Lines & so far none of them have shown any sense of shame, none of them have apologised……….

    What; all 17.4 million of them?

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 16th Apr '19 - 8:32am

    Paul Barker, the following article describes a tragic case in which a Leave voter died after a brutal attack by a Remain voter


    The perpetrator in this case was, of course, just as untypical of Remain voters, as the perpetrators that you mention are of Leave voters.

  • There are all sorts of divisions in our society. People disagree about our relationship with the rest of Europe, just as they do about what football team they support and many other issues. Unfortunately there is no focus in parliament or in most of the media, on the realities of the issues.
    There seems to be mounting evidence of stress in Parliament, especially with reports of bullying of staff. Many people feel bullied at work. It is a cultural thing. We are taught at school that that there is success or there is failure. This is supported by our examination system.
    So let us analyse the real problem. We have a government which governs in name only. We have a Parliament which does not have the means to do its job. And this produces stress. Especially when their inadequacies are being watched around the world.
    There is a distinction between mental ill health and a natural reaction to a situation. Deal with the situation and then you can give help to those who might have real problems.

  • I mean ideally we can also employ the same respect and empathy for the editorial team of this freely accessible website…

  • Hatred, even of meanness
    Makes you ugly.
    Anger, even at injustice
    Makes your voice hoarse.
    -Bertolt Brecht
    Thanks Matt, a humane response to difficult times.

  • Im sorry, Brexit has really done my head in, Ive been particularly upset by the failure of the 3 Remain Parties to run a joint Anti-Brexit slate for the European Elections. If we can’t reach out to fellow Remainers then talking about reaching out to Leavers seems empty.
    Everything in my comment is factually true & it has been overwhelmingly one way. Its Reality that’s gone over the top.
    The tone of my original comment was too bitter & not nuanced enough & im sorry about that.

  • Sue Sutherland 16th Apr '19 - 12:16pm

    Paul Barker you are not alone in the effect Brexit has on you. It’s not just affecting political activists but a large number of the population are experiencing stress about it. I see strong echoes of the Civil War in which families and friends were divided because they supported different sides. I feel distressed because I will no longer belong to the EU family of nations against my will and Brexiters feel angry that their will seems to be being denied through endless delays.
    However, the thing that really gets my goat is that the Tories have succeeded in blaming the EU for the ills in our society. They’ve averted the blame they should be carrying for the cruel policies they are still coming out with onto an organisation which has protected workers rights and is challenging companies on tax. I’m glad they are finding Brexit so difficult to control.

  • David Allen 16th Apr '19 - 1:15pm

    Over-the-top words shouldn’t be allowed to obstruct recognition of essential truths. Leave campaigners don’t have a total monopoly on violence and rudeness, and of course very many Leave campaigners are neither violent nor rude. Nevertheless, Leave does appeal to distrust of foreigners and bombast about Britain. The worst things one might say abour Remain campaigners is that they may tend to overlook what matters to people outside their own social class and they can tend to be a bit smug.

    Politics is not symmetrical. The Right just doesn’t achieve the same moral standards as its opponents. Leave just doesn’t achieve the same moral standards as Remain. To pretend that politics is symmetrical, and that balance requires even-handedness between truth and lies, is the road to perdition.

  • Paul Barker
    We still dfo not know if Change will have been appropriately registered to contest the European elections or whether the challenge to their name will hold things up even more.
    So for the moment Lib Dems have to push on.

  • Mick Taylor 16th Apr '19 - 2:02pm

    Paul Barker.

    How can we reach out to people who don’t want to do business with us? The EU poll – if it happens – is not FPTP it’s a form of PR where parties submit lists of candidates and win seats according to the percentage of votes they get. Do you seriously think that we could, however much we wanted to, agree with other parties and get electoral commission approval by April 24th?

    In any event, how would it be done? Can you imagine the arguments about who was to head which list, how many candidates would each party get on each list? It took a hell of a lot longer to agree a split of parliamentary (single member) seats with the SDP than the 8 days before EU election nomination day on 24th April.

    Even if we had started a week or two ago or it was not possible to comply with the Electoral Commission rules, let alone reach agreement with other parties. Wishing something doesn’t make it so.

    The rub is that it means that unless we agree some sort of informal agreement, that the remain vote will be so split that it may fail to win seats at all. Of course, the Brexit vote is also split but perhaps into not so many parts. And of course, Labour will continue to try and be both for and against Brexit depending on where they are in the country.

    Incidentally, Change UK rang an acquaintance of mine, who lives most of the time in France and asked her to be a candidate for them. She has never been active in politics. She told them no in no uncertain terms and said she’d probably vote LD.

  • Matt Dolman 16th Apr '19 - 2:46pm

    David R – thanks, you make a good point, it’s important to consider the effect of even well-meaning language on everyone who might read it. However, I did pick the theme for a couple of reasons which I stand by: firstly the high number of political campaigners who use language like “carpet bomb” and “enemy territory” on a regular basis; and secondly the association with ‘entrenched’ views or positions. I hope I have explained this properly.

  • We need a sea change in political campaigning so we trust the electorate to make an informed decision, armed with the facts rather than thinking of them as some sort of flock of sheep to be herded into the right pen. I remember when we did no campaigning on election day as we had done our best and it was now up to the electorate to decide. Also trusting the electorate wins votes as we respect them more.

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