Depression in politics – Is it the same in New Zealand?

The Sydney Morning Herald has an article about depression amongst their nation’s leaders.?

It is an interesting read and one written with compassion. There are some interesting parallels with recent events, but what struck me is the high prevalence amongst MPs.

It made me wonder if it happens here. I suspect it is similar.

Warren Entsch wanted to walk away. Wave goodbye to Parliament and never look back.

The Member for Leichhardt, a sprawling electorate in far north Queensland, is one of Parliament House’s big characters, a former toilet cleaner, RAAF serviceman, union representative and wildlife catcher. But now he felt so small.

It was 1999 and the Kim Beazley-led Labor opposition was hounding him over a Defence Force contract awarded to a concrete company of which he was a director and company secretary. Reporters staked out his family farm, begging his neighbours and relatives for dirt on him. His face beamed from the TV set of every airport lounge he entered, yet another politician drenched in muck.

“It was 10 days of absolute hell,” he says. ?”I was sick. I was devastated. I had to go to Canberra Hospital for chest pains. There were a couple of days where I couldn’t get off the couch in my office.”

Fifteen years later, you can still hear a crack in his voice. The anguish is raw. The past is never really past.

“I always feel for someone who is getting beaten up by the media ??what you go through from a mental health perspective is absolutely intense.

“For some people it is the final straw.”

Entsch, 64, always insisted he had done nothing wrong, and Labor eventually abandoned a bid to take him to the High Court. He made a vow: to help any fellow politicians who find themselves in a similar position.

“Whenever I hear of anyone in crisis or with conflict in their lives I am the first person to go support them.”

They speak about marriage breakdowns. Problems with their kids. Alcohol abuse. A scandal hovering above their heads like a giant wave about to break. Some MPs have admitted to thinking about suicide.

Religious or not, Entsch will often refer them to Peter Rose, the official Parliament House chaplain. Every federal politician interviewed for this piece mentioned Rose ? known affectionately as “the padre” ? and praised him highly.

“I have his number on speed dial and so do many MPs,” Entsch said.

It is very, very tough when you are a target and media are camped outside your house, even when you aren’t there.

Another port of call, until his retirement last year, was WA Liberal MP Mal Washer. A registered GP, Washer was known as the “doctor in the house”. Politicians from all sides of politics and their staffers went to him for advice and to have their scripts filled.

Washer estimates about 20 per cent of those working in Parliament House are on anti-depressants. Many more take sleeping medication.

“There was a significant amount of depression,” he says. “People felt flat and dejected. Lonely, lost and isolated.

“It’s a very isolating feeling to be a politician.”

Indeed, it was Winston Churchill, wartime Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, who first used the term “black dog” to describe his own battle with depression.

One of the many MPs who visited Washer for a consultation was Andrew Robb, then a senior opposition frontbencher. In 2009 Robb revealed he had depression and took three months’ leave.

Former NSW Liberal leader John Brogden, now chairman?of mental health charity Lifeline, says Robb’s decision to go public shows that attitudes to mental illness are improving. Brodgen was admitted to hospital in 2005 after revelations he had made unwelcome sexual advances to two female journalists.

“When I had my suicide attempt, the premier and my successor gave me leave for as long as I wanted,” he says.

“Despite that, I didn’t believe the media would let me recover in private if I stayed as a politician.

“Andrew’s success as an opposition frontbencher and trade minister is demonstration that things have changed.”

That’s not to say they are perfect.

“The stigma has moved on a bit but it is still there,” Robb told Radio National last week. “It is a very competitive field, politics. Once I re-engaged fully ??and on occasions when I was challenging for different leadership positions ??I know it was used against me with media and others to try and create a sense that I was not stable enough to hold down senior positions.”

Depression is used against those of us who suffer it.

Have a look at the comments on some left wing blogs, by the authors as wells as commenters. Apparently if you suffer depression you shouldn’t write, show your face in public, because you are “mental”…and all this from the supposedly caring left.

Depression is a lonely, lonely place, made even more lonely by the fact you can end up counting your friends very often on just one finger. That said in my experience there are those with compassion out there, on both sides of the political spectrum, though I’d have to say the weight of support is more right leaning than left, but there are some surprising left leaning characters (MPs too) who have reached out. I appreciated it then and I appreciate it now.

We need to discuss int he open far more than currently the effects of depression, not for sympathy…because no one wants sympathy (it’s in the dictionary between shit and syphilis), but so other can understand that depression is more than just feeling a bit sad.

In my case it was never feeling sad…it was pure unadulterated rage…and still is…learning to control that has been the toughest battle of my life.

If there is one thing that John Kirwan achieved it was making it OK for blokes to talk about depression without feeling like a big sook.


– Sydney Morning Herald