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Stigma and stress: mental health problems common among MPs

MPs at Westminster suffer from higher rates of mental health problems than either the general public or other employees in comparable professions, according to a scientific survey of parliamentarians by researchers from King’s College London.

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The survey also revealed low awareness among MPs of the existence of the confidential parliamentary support service or how to access it. Equally, it highlights a low level of willingness among suffering MPs to open up about their mental health to either appointed party officials (Whips) or fellow MPs.

Very little research has ever been published on the mental health of UK parliamentarians and the study, published in the BMJ Open, is the first to take a scientific approach using validated methods.

An anonymous online survey was sent to MPs in December 2016, using the General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12) focusing on a wide range of issues, from the ability to concentrate, through stress levels and capacity to cope, to perceptions of unhappiness, depression, and self-worth. 

Responses were compared with those for the nationally representative annual Health Survey for England (HSE) 2014, divided into four categories: total population; corporate managers; all managers; and those in high income groups. 

Among MPs completing the survey, 34% have probable common mental health problems such as anxiety or depression compared to 17% in the high-income group. Compared with all four categories of HSE respondents, MPs had poorer mental health and reported higher levels of worthlessness, unhappiness, and depression.

MPs were also asked if they knew about the mental health support services available to them, as well as their willingness to talk about their mental health with party Whips or other MPs. Most MPs were unaware of the existing anonymous in-house Parliamentary Health and Wellbeing Service, which was set up in 2013 for their workplace health needs.

More than three out of four respondents (77%) didn’t know about this service, while over half (55%) didn’t know how to access it.  Half (52%) were unwilling to open up about their mental health to party Whips or to other MPs (48%).

Out of 650 MPs at Westminster, 146 MPs responded to the survey, a relatively low response rate, which the researchers say might indicate the persisting stigma associated with mental illness and the nature of an MP’s life lived in the public eye, resulting in fear of being identified and fear of potential reputational damage.

Co-lead researcher Nicole Votruba, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s, says: ‘Every person should be able to access help when experiencing mental distress, so we were concerned to discover how few MPs knew about support services within Parliament. The extent of stigma among MPs, which our results indicate, is startling and seems out of step with increasing public awareness of mental health.”

Co-lead researcher and Conservative MP Dr Dan Poulter says: ‘This is the first study of its kind to start to evaluate the mental health and wellbeing of UK parliamentarians. It suggests a high level of mental distress among MPs and raises important issues about how we can better support the people making and scrutinising the laws that run our country, who experience poor mental health.’

The paper is published online.