‘Brexit Caused Me To Have A Breakdown’ – Inside Parliament’s Toxic Stress Problem

The stress of working on Brexit caused Westminster staffer, Tara Jane O'Reilly' to have a breakdown. And she says she's not the only person in politics being driven to the brink.

Parliament Toxic Stress

by Tara Jane O'Reilly |

Crying in the toilets at work used to be something I associated with being dumped by text during your shift. Now, for those of us working at the heart of the Brexit drama in Parliament, it’s a regular occurrence.

We know Brexit is affecting everyone’s mental health – last week, the first ever case of Brexit-induced psychosis was reported. And inside the Houses, there are long hours filled with dramatic votes; the constant instability of MPs resigning from their positions or parties due to Brexit disagreements; pressure and abuse from the public; and the ever-looming threat of a general election. Unsurprisingly, it’s taking a toll on the mental health of MPs and staff in Westminster.

I work as an assistant to a group of Labour MPs known as Tribune and, like many parliamentary staffers, I spend most of my days doing research, writing briefings and going to meetings with politicians. Famous faces become familiar – only last week I saw the former Prime Minister Theresa May buying a sandwich – and it’s normal to share a laugh with a Government minister in the coffee queue in Portcullis House, the school canteen of politics. Usually, the start of the week is intense and busy, whereas the end feels calmer because MPs return to their constituencies; the rest of us use this time to catch our breath.

These days, however, with the deadline to leave the EU on the 31 October and Parliament yet to agree a deal with which to leave, MPs and staff are working around the clock to find a way to move forward – with many having breakfast, lunch and dinner in the House of Commons. ‘You are constantly surrounded by Brexit and its consequences, from early morning to late at night, when you’re still on call during a vote,’ says a friend who works for a prominent Labour MP.

'MPs and staff are working around the clock to find a way to move forward.'

Many of us make poor attempts at self-medication: drinking lots of wine and living off junk food. ‘The stresses and pressures on Westminster staffers can only be truly appreciated by other staffers,’ says Harriet Harman, the longest continuously serving woman MP (she’s known as the Mother of the House). ‘And the young ones and those who are fresh out of university are particularly vulnerable.

Rest breaks in politics are rare and, even when recess is called, the change in pace can be overwhelming for some. After months of Brexit and political uncertainty this year, when summer recess came around, I broke. A week into it, I had a breakdown. I was having panic attacks every day, I was vomiting, I lost weight; I couldn’t handle the sudden drop in workload, and I was burned out. I’m taking medication and seeing a therapist now, and I imagine I will be doing both of these things for as long as my career in politics lasts.

Parliament is a workplace that has always been depicted as high pressure and stressful – think of Malcolm Tucker’s explosive outbursts on The Thick Of It or the staff ’s all-nighters on The West Wing – but the exaggerated scenes in these shows now feel more like reality each day. When Parliament was prorogued in early September, the drama reached new heights: MPs held a protest in the chamber, placards and all.

A recent study by the British Medical Journal into psychological wellbeing among MPs found that 34% have mental health problems, compared to 26% of the general population. It’s not surprising considering the work they’re doing. Rosie Duffield, the Labour MP for Canterbury, who was elected in 2017, tells me, ‘This dilemma [of Brexit] seems unsolvable and has no obvious, straightforward or clear solution. We get through one hurdle and then others immediately spring up and we’re trying to solve those. It’s a recurring, never-ending round of serious, perilous problems that we can’t make right.

The chaos is impacting personal lives. ‘When you do get the chance to go home, your mates then ask you about Brexit,’ says a young woman who recently started working as a parliamentary assistant. ‘There’s little headroom for anything else, especially self-care. You end up abandoning personal life at the expense of your mental health. Your job becomes your life. Even as a political enthusiast, you yearn to talk about anything but politics.

'There’s little headroom for anything else, especially self-care.'

Parliament does offer a Health and Wellbeing Service with access to mental health support. However, the BMJ research found that 77% of MPs did not know how to access the service, and 52% wouldn’t discuss their mental health with party whips or other MPs. Although help is available, a culture of keeping quiet still puts people off seeking it, with the charity Mind finding that one in three in Parliament said stigma was a barrier to openness about mental health. Most honest conversations happen over secret coffees, after one too many drinks, or in dark corners of the Palace of Westminster.

‘I don’t want to sound like a snowflake,’ says Enya Evans, a 23-year-old working in the Liberal Democrat Party’s Chief Whip’s office, ‘but the Brexit mess has meant I sleep less, my diet is rubbish, and I drink more.’ Enya has used the Health and Wellbeing Service, but felt that ‘the staff didn’t understand what my job was. They didn’t know what a whips’ office did and why you would need to work late. The service ultimately can’t change working conditions.

To achieve a real culture change, action must come from the top: MPs must take their own mental health seriously and be honest about the impact of the job. Tory MP Huw Merriman revealed in an interview in April that he has lost weight due to the stress of Brexit and has started seeing a counsellor, and Anna Soubry, the former Tory minister who is now leader of breakaway party Change UK, has spoken about her fears and experiences of abuse. But public discussions about these matters remain unusual.

Ideally, the working hours and workload should reflect that of any modern workplace; debating in a chamber until 2am is not healthy for anyone. Harriet Harman agrees that change is needed. ‘Staff need support near at hand that completely understands their unique situation – not to have to struggle through a tangle of agencies and referrals.’

It’s clear that we are experiencing the biggest political crisis of our lives – and clearer still that it is affecting the health of those in charge of steering us through it. This should worry us all: our representatives and those who work for them need to be well to do their jobs effectively. After all, everyone’s future is at stake.

READ MORE: ‘Britain Deserves A Parliament That Is Fit For Purpose In A Modern Democracy’

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