May 21, 2024

It was a political bombshell, one that prompted shock and set off debate across much of Spain. But for the film director Pedro Almodóvar, news that the prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, was considering resigning last week did not come as a surprise.

“There’s no human being who can resist what the most resistant of our presidents has been suffering in recent years,” Almodóvar wrote in an open letter, published days before Sánchez announced he would stay on, depicting Sánchez as a politician who had potentially reached his breaking point.

It was a glimpse into another, often hushed, conversation playing out in Spain and around the world in recent years: the impact that the increasingly toxic nature of politics is having on politicians – and what can be done to ease it.

When Ashley Weinberg, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Salford, began collecting data on politicians and their mental wellbeing in the early 1990s, he was among a few delving into the issue. “A lot of people outside politics go: ‘Yeah, they don’t deserve any sympathy’,” Weinberg said. “But you obviously want people in all kinds of occupations to be in the best possible frame of mind and state to do their work.”

In recent years, however, things have started to change, particularly as politicians themselves sound the alarm. “We’re certainly having this conversation much more frequently now,” Weinberg said. “We’re hearing politicians saying: ‘There’s only so long I can do this’.”

Leo Varadkar announcing his resignation on 20 March. Photograph: EPA

That was the message offered up by Ireland’s Leo Varadkar as he announced his resignation as taoiseach earlier this year, noting: “Politicians are human beings and we have our limitations. We give it everything until we can’t any more.”

There had been a similar sentiment a year earlier from Jacinda Ardern, who said she no longer had “enough in the tank” to lead New Zealand as the prime minister.

Others, such as Finland’s Sanna Marin, have sought to underscore that politicians are people. “I am human,” Marin said in 2022 when she was called on to defend her private life, adding that she sometimes longed “for joy, light and fun amidst the dark clouds”.

‘I am human’: Sanna Marin defends private life in defiant address – video

Some of this conversation could be explained by growing awareness of the importance of mental health, particularly in the wake of the Covid pandemic, Weinberg said. There is also a sense that social media and 24/7 news have pushed this conversation to the forefront, as politicians seek to juggle the high workloads and competing interests that have always characterised the job while they – and at times their family members – are constantly in the public eye.

“Politics can be a brutal business,” said Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s first minister, this week as he announced his resignation. “It takes a toll on your physical and mental health; your family suffer alongside you.”

In the Netherlands, the former deputy prime minister Sigrid Kaag said last year that she had decided to end her political career after years of “hate, intimidation and threats” had taken a toll on her husband and children. “I just couldn’t do this to them again,” she said.

It was these kinds of anecdotes that pushed the Berlin-based Apolitical Foundation to launch a first-of-its-kind global exploration of the mental wellbeing of politicians late last year.Interviews and surveys with more than 100 current and former politicians found that 41% of the current politicians surveyed reported low or very low mental wellbeing.

What came as a surprise was how this stacked up against other professions, said Kimberly McArthur, of the organisation. “This 41% was a lower level of wellbeing than police, or ambulances and first responders – what are acknowledged as high-stress positions,” she said.

Humza Yousaf speaking at a press conference at Bute House in Edinburgh on Monday. Photograph: Getty Images

The findings were attributed to several factors, including long work hours and the lack of any concrete job description or, often, handover from predecessors. “So you go into a role that’s incredibly important, that has a lot of responsibility but very little clarity,” McArthur said.

Social media also plays a large role. It “has really changed the game”, McArthur said. “One of the older interviewees told us that you used to receive maybe a letter a week. And then when email came in, he would receive a few emails. But now, for the younger generation, he acknowledged that they were receiving often hateful, harassing messages thousands of times a day, potentially.”

Research has consistently shown that this harassment can be particularly acute for women and people of colour, McArthur said. “Why is it that someone goes from a regular person to, once they’re a politician, being the subject of so much aggression and hatred?”

The foundation is working to build on the findings by implementing strategies to help improve the wellbeing of politicians, whether it is through mindfulness training or challenging the norms around social media abuse.

Jacinda Ardern resigns as prime minister of New Zealand in shock announcement – video

“We need political leaders to be at the top of their game,” McArthur said, particularly as they grapple with critical issues such as the climate crisis and polarisation. “We need them to be making the best decisions possible because their decisions affect all of our lives in a myriad of ways.”

Failure to deal with these issues could also have grave consequences for political leadership, setting off a “silencing effect” where women, people of colour and others avoid the job amid concerns over its detrimental impact on wellbeing, she added. “And so we’re potentially missing out on having very, very good people going into this role.”

It was a risk hinted at by Sánchez in a letter last week. At this point, the question I legitimately ask myself is: ‘Is it all worth it?’,” he wrote. “Honestly, I don’t know.”

Now that the conversation is beginning to gain traction, Weinberg said the million-dollar question was what needed to be done. “And that’s a tricky one,” he said. “What is missing, I suppose, is a long, hard look at the design of the job to consider whether this is sustainable or achievable for someone whilst maintaining good physical and mental health.”


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