Mental Health and Public Office


While pottering around on the web, I came across this story from the Camden New Journal, about Councillor Chris Basson – an elected official who suffers from bipolar disorder.

He resigned from his post earlier this week, following, according to the article

three years on the council that were wrecked by poor attendance and gossiping.

Poor attendance, fair enough, but I think we can venture a guess or two as to what the nature of the gossiping might have entailed.

His statement of resignation reads as follows

“I was diagnosed with Bipolar Affective Disorder in 1996 – more commonly known as manic depression,” he said.
“With appropriate medication, I was able to manage the condition in the run-up to the 2006 election. However, since then I suffered from a series of relapses including nervous breakdowns – which have involved hospitalisation – and I have struggled to bring the condition under control.”
He added: “I have been unable to carry out my duties in the way I wanted. I regret that I haven’t had the confidence to talk about this publicly before now in the way that others, such as Stephen Fry, have.”

Honestly, I was struck with more than a hint of sadness when I read this. It does make me realise the importance that the removal of stigma has.

How supportive do opposing politicians need to be though?

In a tense week at the Town Hall, the Lib Dems have been accused of picking the wrong candidate in the first place and then allowing Mr Basson to stay in office longer than was appropriate.
Labour councillor Jonathan Simpson: “Of course it is sad whenever somebody experiences difficulties like this but this is why you have to be careful about which candidates you chose. ”

Personally I feel the Lib Dems come out of this with more credit than the Labour councillor quoted above.

It’s interesting that while enforced hospitalisation would disqualify an MP, it would not disqualify a councillor. And the people in that ward would not remain unrepresented by one councillors absence as there are three councillors per ward and it sounds like party members may be willing to provide cover for colleagues.

However there is also a statement explaining that his health has deteriorated since his election. Perhaps the pressures of public office have taken their toll? So, the opposition parties claim, have the Liberal Democrats failed in their duty of care to this councillor by not persuading him to stand down earlier?

It’s hard to know which way to call it. It is a sadness though, for him and those associated with him. We need people who understand and experience services and situations that the people they represent do.

Similarities are drawn with another member of the same council,

It had been an open secret at the Town Hall that Mr Basson was in poor health – his attendance seemed to get worse and worse – but the issue was not pressed. To some extent, this sympathetic convention mirrored the treatment of Camden’s longest-serving Labour councillor Roy Shaw, whose health failed while he was in office.

It’s hard not to determine that the differential consideration is given to a councillor whose physical health fails but when he becomes more unwell mentally, it becomes a game for political football.

I certainly wish Basson a speedy recovery and certainly hope this does not put an end to the impact that he has on public life. Not least because it allows a much deeper exploration of prejudices.

5 thoughts on “Mental Health and Public Office

  1. It’s interesting that this has happened just at the same time as the ‘Time to Change’ campaign is attempting to educate employers- and society in general- about mental health and reduce the stigma for people with difficulties to gain and maintain employment. It doesn’t send out a very positive message to other council employees who may have mental health difficulties, when the council treats physical and mental disabilities differently at it’s top levels. 😦

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  3. My yardstick: if the guy had a serious back problem and couldn’t get out of the house some days, would it be a problem then? If the answer is yes, then, I guess poor attendance is a problem.

    If not it’s stigma.

    • DeeDee – That’s exactly the type of comparison I was thinking of. I don’t know the details of the other council member’s illness that was referred to in the article. I think there is a point at which attendance becomes an issue but – and I think this another point I was considering – would the political fallout have been the same in the ‘back injury’ situation. The backroom gossip and mutterings seemed to be a direct relation to the type of illness.

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