Why politicians keep quiet about their mental illnesses inside

It's an unwritten law of politics: don't talk about your mental illness. Three politicians have spoken to me about this anyway.

On a regular basis, seemingly every few weeks, there is a recurring campaign on social media: actors:ing, artists:ing, and professional athletes:ing talk about their mental illnesses. You make yourself vulnerable to break – and enlighten – the taboo around depression, eating disorders or borderline.

One professional group, however, speaks out surprisingly rarely: politicians. The seem per se physical. Being mentally fit. This can not actually be. In the course of a year, 8.2 percent of the German population suffer from depression – and they certainly don't stop at party offices. On the contrary, chief medical officer Bastian Willenborg said in 2019, "The profession of politics is associated with an increased risk of mental illness."

But why do we almost never hear of ministers with depression, members of parliament with an eating disorder or parliamentary party leaders with borderline personality disorders?? How can stressful everyday life in the light of day with mental illness be endured at all? I have spoken to the few who are open about their illnesses.

Arndt Klocke in his constituency office. His working week comprises around 50 to 70 working hours. Free weekends? Usually not the case.

Politician:in is one of the toughest professions

One of them is Arndt Klocke, 50. He has been a member of the state parliament since 2010. Deputy leader of the Green Party in North Rhine-Westphalia. He came out of the closet four years ago. In a newspaper interview shortly before Christmas, he confessed to his illness: recurrent, i.e. repeatedly occurring, moderate depression with elements of an anxiety disorder. Together with a reporter from the Kolner Stadtanzeiger, he even visited the day clinic where he had been treated for some time.

"Emptiness, despair and fear took possession of me. I was no longer myself. At some point it was clear that I would not get through this alone," he said, describing his mental state.

Today he regrets having spoken about it so openly? "The decision to make this public was good and right," Klocke says on the phone.

In 2017, when he opened his apps on his phone the morning after the interview, hundreds of messages popped up with positive feedback from the Green Party and from private friends. Even in the state parliament, colleagues initially reacted with understanding. "I received a lot of appreciation from my Green colleagues, but also from the other parliamentary groups SPD, FDP and CDU," says Klocke.

Klocke was relieved. But it did not stop at positive feedback. A few weeks later, after the holidays, Klocke learned through indirect channels that there were "question marks" from individuals about his "resilience.". Nobody said that directly to his face.

Klocke gave the interview at that time also because he knew that the work in the parliament is already for psychically healthy colleagues an enormous, psychological challenge. Occasionally, colleagues told him they were stressed or needed a weekend off. "But for someone to say of their own accord, 'I don't feel well, I'm completely burnt out and need a cure' – I've never experienced that in my 20 active years."

Politics, says Klocke, is a hard business. "We want to move society forward."But there is also competition and envy, it is regularly about influence and power.

If you want to rise from the midfield, you have to get past competitors. It can happen that one flaw is sought in the other. "A mental illness is more likely to give rise to this than a physical one," says Klocke. But no one would admit that so openly.

So there's really no room for mental illness in everyday politics. This also has to do with the expectations of those who are represented by politics: the citizens.

"There's a professional impetus that says politicians:inside are always on duty," Klocke says. He is regularly approached while shopping in his function as a member of parliament. In the swimming pool under the shower, someone sometimes approaches him: "You're Mr. Klocke, I sent you an e-mail last week and haven't received an answer yet."

Klocke works between 50 and 70 hours a week. He usually gets up between 7 and 8 in the morning and works until 11 p.m. "And then I have an hour to myself." And the weekends? "They are generally not free."

In order not to get lost in the stressful daily work routine, Klocke takes breaks. He calls them his "two-hour islands". In which he sits down with a book in the backyard garden, in the nearby park or on the Rhine. "I had to learn to defend these islands in the calendar. Even opposite my own office."Sometimes the constituency staffer comes in: "The mayoress absolutely wants to talk to you."

There are not many people like Klocke who talk openly about their illness and the daily struggle to stay healthy in everyday life. Politicians fear losing their jobs because of it. That's why many only talk about it when they are in such poor health that they have to resign.

Like the SPD politician Matthias Platzeck. He resigned from his post as SPD chairman in 2006. But only after he had already suffered a nervous and circulatory collapse plus two hearing falls. Der Spiegel headlined: Platzeck resignation shocks SPD. Platzeck's faction leader told the magazine: "I do believe that the party will be disturbed."

Luise Schonemann in her office. Schonemann has a bipolar disorder, she also knows depression all too well: in 2021 she was absent from the state parliament for three weeks because of it.

How a local politician in Erfurt deals with her illness

Luise Schonemann, 38, knows the moment when it no longer works and a break from politics seems to be the only way out. Schonemann is a city councilor in Erfurt. Speaker in the Thuringian state parliament for The Left Party. Since she was 21. She has a bipolar disorder since the age of 18, which she now deals with openly.

The responsibility of being a city councilor in a medium-sized city is "time-consuming, but manageable," Schonemann says. "At the municipal level, we vote on zoo parks and construction projects – and whether trees should be cut down. So the political decisions are not of great consequence."

Nevertheless, her illness sometimes makes everyday life almost unbearable. When there are arguments at city council meetings because the AfD is causing discord, Schonemann realizes how stressful it is for her. Schonemann needs more time to come to terms with her experiences than mentally healthy people. There's not always room for that in a heated debate. "It often feels like dancing on a volcano."

Once the volcano erupted. At a meeting, an AfD politician blamed the mayor of Erfurt for the death of a cyclist who was hit by a streetcar at an unfinished set of traffic lights. The AfD politician had not even addressed Schonemann directly in the meeting, yet the moment occupied her for days. "This is not only tasteless, this is already disgusting."

There is not always understanding in the political establishment for the extra burden Schonemann carries around with her. In 2021, she had to take sick leave from her job as a staffer in the state parliament. Depression had such a grip on her that she could no longer manage her daily life. She stayed at home for three weeks.

In their worst phases of illness, it does not go without. Then Luise Schonemann also trusts her medication.

Her illness was known in the parliamentary group. Because mental health is now invisible, sufferers are treated less empathetically. "You can see everything is in place, so the employee is healthy," says Schonemann. "It's like when someone has broken their arm. And as soon as the cast is off, it's time to carry the beer crate."

Schonemann started early to exchange ideas about mental illness with other people in her party. She became friends with a number of colleagues. "Privately we also talk about it."In contrast, mental health is not discussed among local politicians or in the city council.

Like Arndt Klocke, Luise Schonemann is also looking for ways to create space in her everyday life where she can take a deep breath. "I'm in the choir, I have singing lessons, and I try to do a bit of sport. Sports and music help me best. And talk about it."In an emergency, when she can no longer do her job as a staff member in the state parliament and as a city councilor, she wants to do outpatient psychotherapy. At the daily workload can Klocke. Schoenemann nothing to change. It seems they are inextricably interwoven with professions in politics. Psychologist Ashley Weinberg has long conducted research on the psychology of politicians. After many quantitative studies between 1992 and 2010, he asked an interesting question in his work: should the profession of politician:inside be provided with a state health warning?

Weinberg writes that a fifth or more of politician:ins in the UK report mental health problems and a third fear stigma and discrimination. If such a disease is known, more attention needs to be paid to helping politicians at all levels to deal with such challenges.

What has been missing, he said, is a safety net to catch those for whom the workplace is becoming a health hazard. "Those who rise to high office admit to being 'survivors' who can withstand the preres of conflicting demands and high workloads".

Noreen Thiel had even raised the ie of mental health in her election campaign. For this she reaped a shitstorm.

Politicians:inside offer attack surface to be mauled by the media

Noreen Thiel, 18, doesn't want it to get to that point. Without hesitation, she already talks about her illnesses, at the very beginning of her political career. Thiel ran for the FDP for the Bundestag in Berlin-Lichtenberg. And she suffers from moderate depressive episodes, an eating disorder and multiple anxiety disorders. Thiel can't say when she was last healthy. "I am, as of today, ill."

Thiel also advocates for the social destigmatization of mental illnesses. The ie is central to her election campaign. "MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS" is written on one of their campaign posters. For this she reaped a shitstorm.

"It is hypocritical, as FDP to write something like that on the posters – and then also in English."In addition, critics wrote on social media, Thiel was adopting the "Matter" from Black Lives Matter. " To which I replied that there is an association in Great Britain called Mental Health Matters."It has existed for a long time. Thiel canceled all appointments for the following day and called in sick.

Thiel has not yet held political office. But she can imagine why politicians don't talk about their mental health: "I have the feeling that many don't tell because they are really worried in this shark tank of politics that they will be replaced very quickly – by someone who is not mentally ill."

Despite her open approach to the subject, she herself does not know of any other politicians who are mentally ill. "There are people where you have amptions. But I am the last person who would proactively ask people about it and ask." Thiel says she finds it impertinent to expose people in this way.

Noreen Thiel, who has made illness part of her political identity, is not alone in doing so. It's hard to miss, and all it takes is a glance at Twitter, Tiktok or Instagram to do so. It's part of a social movement, especially among young people, who are finding it easier to talk about their own mental health.

Mental illness among politicians is likely to remain the elephant in the caucus room. Openness and honesty don't mix well with a job designed for public image. And a job that serves the common good leaves little room for how the individuals who do it are doing.

It will take many more people like Thiel, Schonemann and Klocke to overcome the stigma of mental illness in politics. And until a health minister talks about his sleep disorders or panic attacks as a matter of course.

Editing: Thembi Wolf, Final Editing: Susan Mucke, Photo Editing: Till Rimmele, Audio Editing: Christian Melchert

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