Tuesday 25 October 2016

The emotional trauma of a politician's wife

Patricia Casey

Published 09/06/2015 | 02:30

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, who died aged 55. Photo: PA
Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, who died aged 55. Photo: PA

I knew little of Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the Lib Dems, who died suddenly last week at the age of 55. But Charles Kennedy, the entertainer, was somebody whose contributions I enjoyed, whether he was speaking at the Edinburgh Festivals or serving on the panel with Paul Merton on BBC's iconic news quiz Have I got News for You.

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He was always engaging and witty. There was one occasion I clearly recall when Jeremy Clarkson, a man with his own frailties, but lacking the grace and humility of Kennedy, introduced him remarking: "On Paul Merton's team tonight is a man who, after confessing to a drinking problem, reported that four party officials cornered him in his private office - although later it transpired that there were only two of them: Charles Kennedy!"

Laughs and applause from the audience in response to double reference. He took it on the chin and performed with ease and without any rancour.

Are the struggles that Kennedy experienced rare or are they common among parliamentarians?

With a few notable exceptions, in this country, our politicians have been reticent to admit to any such frailties.

This contrasts sharply with our neighbours, where it was announced some years ago that £25,000 was being allocated for the provision of mental health services for members of parliament in Britain. This followed revelations that a number of MPs suffered with serious mental illness.

A Labour MP disclosed that he had suffered with severe depression. Former defence minister, Kevan Jones, revealed his illness that was unknown to constituents and even to some members of his family.

A former GP and labour MP, Sarah Wollaston, informed her colleagues and constituents that she was suicidal after giving birth. She spoke movingly of the "paralysis that can come with severe depression", while her colleague Andrea Leadsom also described a similar experience.

Charles Walker, a Tory MP, spoke of having obsessive compulsive disorder and engaging in rituals of hand-washing and counting. Despite suffering with it for 30 years, he believes that it has made him a better and stronger person.

Brooks Newmark also "came out" as having had anorexia nervosa and of his struggle to eat even a single pea from his plate.

Is there something unique about the politicians' work that renders them vulnerable to mental illness? Are they mirroring the mental health problems prevalent in the population that they represent? In truth, we don't have a scientific answer to these questions, but one can speculate. And it is probably a bit of each.

The House of Commons bar, like the Dail bar, is convivial, and alcohol is cheaper than in ordinary outlets. Members are living away from home, sitting and working late into the evenings. Unless there is a strong abstemious streak, it is not surprising that alcohol will form a significant part of the wind-down after a busy day.

Then, there is the entertaining of constituents, the constituency dinners and other outings that involve alcohol - these fan the flames of abuse.

Thrown into this mix also will be those who are predisposed to alcohol misuse, either by genetic misfortune or by exposure to it during the formative childhood years.

It is inevitable that some, like Kennedy, will succumb to addiction.

A further factor is the temporary nature of the employment that is the politicians' lot, and for which they must reapply every five years. While they may have other jobs to return to if they lose their seat, for some, most of their working life will have been devoted to trying to create a better society and to representing the needs of their constituents.

In Kennedy's case, he has been an MP since the age of 23. After 33 years of service to the community in which he was educated, prayed and played, and where he subsequently lived in his grandfather's house, he was rejected by them in the election just one month ago.

Rejection by an individual is always troubling; to be cast aside by a community in whom your life's work has been invested must be heartbreaking.

No doubt, one's sense of self-worth will be shattered.

There is something sad about the aftermath of a general election as the remaining posters, full of earlier promise, now remind us that power is alluring yet so ephemeral. And what of the candidates with the once smiling faces and catchy slogans; those who have failed in their ambition to give voice to their dreams and aspirations in the corridors of power?

The realisation that public office is over must be devastating. It is this, more than anything else in political life, which will likely render politicians uniquely vulnerable to mental health problems

Charles Kennedy has passed, but every year, in every country, there are others who, like him, suffer the emotional devastation of rejection.

We will be confronting similar realities in Ireland in 2016.

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