'People from all sides and factions are knackered, stressed, do not get enough sleep and do not see enough of their loved ones'
It seems fair to say that Brexit has not been a great unifier in Westminster. Beyond simple party lines, MPs are now divided according to which side of the referendum they backed, how they reacted to 23 June 2016, which Brexit (or none) they would like to see happen, and what they think is the best way to get there.
This has led to several years of endless and acrimonious debates, long hours, unpredictable schedules and relentless abuse from the outside world. But there is one thing they all agree on – everyone feels awful.
People from all sides and factions are knackered, stressed, do not get enough sleep and do not see enough of their loved ones. MPs, parliamentary staff, civil servants and the journalists who cover them aren’t doing well, and there is no sign that things will improve soon.
The lid is finally being lifted on the toll Brexit has taken on so many, with stories of reporters crying from exhaustion when they get home and MPs’ aides weeping in the Palace’s loos while at work.
What is there to be done? The Brexit debate is not going away, and a political sphere full of broken people is of help to no one.
“I don’t work in politics in a direct way but I must say I’m not surprised,” professor Brett Kahr, a trustee of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy said when told of Westminster’s mental health crisis. “I know from my own clinical practice that ordinary members of the public are vexed by everything Brexit, so I can only imagine what those working on the frontline must be experiencing.”
He adds: “The very first and most important comment to make is that if someone is having difficulties to the point where they are bursting into tears in the toilet, first and foremost, identify the fact that this is happening, be aware of it and reach out for help.”
While the political culture in Westminster can lead people to believe that a stressful environment is a given and not coping well with it is a personal failing, it is not the case, and professional help can be life-changing.
Beyond counselling and therapy, there are a few other things anyone feeling overwhelmed by the current situation can do.
According to psychologist Dr Ashley Weinberg, it is important that MPs are able to draw together on a human level – although he acknowledges it’s easier said than done.
“I don’t know whether there are meetings taking place just to check how people are coping with it, sharing experiences, and having the opportunity to take advice from one another. And that might be a useful thing, which the Speaker’s office could be engaged in. In organisations, you would hope that when there’s a crisis going on, you’d bring staff together.”
While it might seem counterintuitive to turn for comfort to the person you’ve just sparred with in the Commons chamber (or late night in Strangers), the idea isn’t a bad one. After all, the Palace of Westminster was built to be a social place and, regardless of which side you’re on, it should not be controversial to say that clearer minds tend to lead to better discussions.
Though Brexit is an emotional issue as well as a political one, consciously separating work interactions from personal ones could be good for everyone’s wellbeing, as well as a potential gateway to more amiable compromises.
Switch off the media, keep the mobile phone off, otherwise you're not getting a break
If that doesn’t work out, stepping away even momentarily can always help. “In terms of the workload, MPs and their staff are used to working particularly long hours, but carving out some windows of opportunity just to step away from the job, switch off the media, keep the mobile phone off, just for a few hours here and there can be particularly important, otherwise, mentally you’re not getting a break,” Weinberg says. “And that in itself makes it that much harder to come back the following day and deal with this onslaught.”
This also seems easier said than done. As Twitter and WhatsApp continue to shape and dominate the political agenda, not glancing at a screen for 10 minutes can often make people feel like they have missed out on a day’s worth of news.
Still, there are ways around this; very few people in Westminster work alone, and making the best of having a team around you can provide a solution.
“I know MPs pretty much rely on having their finger on the pulse, but perhaps staff in the office can say OK, I’m going to monitor what’s happening on this given occasion, and then the role of keeping an eye on the Twitter feeds and everything else can rotate around the office, so it’s not everyone having to do it all the time.”
If you know that there is someone in your office in charge of monitoring what’s going on and who will shout if anything happens, it will be easier to focus on the task at hand and take a breath.
Still, therapists remain clear on one thing – making a series of small changes to your life can help you cope a bit better, but no amount of easy hacks will solve everything.
“I’m not a big fan of tips, they’re often a bit too easy,” says Dr Kahr. “Unless you’re in a state of mind to really use the tip, it’s a bit like every cardiologist saying ‘avoid fatty foods’ – we all know that already.”
But he has one piece of advice that could really make a difference: keep a diary. Catharsis can be vital, especially when so many strong feelings are in play on such a regular basis. Buying a diary and writing in it every day, even just for 10 minutes each evening, is a good way to get those feelings in order.
Future you just might thank you as well; these might not be easy times to live through but they are momentous, and we are all playing our part in them.