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Johnston: The battles of mental health

Red Deer mayor Ken Johnston address mental health in his March Mayor’s Message

This month, I’d like to address a pressing issue that affects not only our esteemed politicians but also every single citizen in our community: mental health.

Today, I am going to spend a little time talking about politicians as a sector. I hear a lot of stories from colleagues across Alberta and Canada about the political climate, and the abuse that many of us are dealing with. This concerns me personally and professionally.

In today’s fast-paced and tumultuous political climate, the mental well-being of our leaders is suffering, and it’s time we recognize the importance of addressing this issue with urgency and compassion. The pressures of political life are immense, but more troubling are the escalating levels of abuse and harassment faced by politicians, particularly women and minorities, including threats of sexual violence and racism.

Politicians, regardless of their affiliations or ideologies, shoulder enormous responsibilities. They are tasked with making crucial decisions that impact the lives of countless individuals, navigating complex issues, and enduring constant scrutiny from the public and the media. But there is a difference between critique and abuse. When I look out at the political landscape and the level of discourse, it’s unkind and it’s unproductive. We’ve long said, “be hard on the issue, not on the person,” yet more frequently, we’re seeing a shift to being hard on the person. Frankly, what makes the situation worse is often, we as politicians, are our own worst enemy.

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a concerning trend of politicians experiencing mental health challenges openly. From anxiety disorders to depression, many have bravely stepped forward to share their struggles, breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness. However, despite these efforts, the mental health of politicians remains a largely overlooked aspect of public service.

The consequences of neglecting the mental health of our leaders are profound, not just for them, but for the constituents we represent. When politicians are overwhelmed by stress or grappling with mental health issues, their ability to govern effectively diminishes. Decision-making becomes impaired, communication falters, and trust in our democratic institutions wanes. Ultimately, the well-being of our entire community is jeopardized. This, of course, is quite a serious matter when one considers the quality required, or the depth of knowledge required to be successful in political life, and not getting the breadth and depth of individuals to run.

Moreover, the plight of politicians also affects those who might be considering entering politics. When they witness the challenges their political colleagues face, including the abuse and harassment, it may deter them from pursuing a career in public service. This reluctance to engage in politics could result in a lack of diverse voices and perspectives in our political landscape, ultimately weakening our democracy.

But the plight of politicians is not unique. Across Red Deer and our province, many of our citizens are facing similar battles with mental health. The pressures of work, family obligations, financial concerns, and societal expectations can all contribute to feelings of overwhelm and despair. And yet, far too often, individuals suffer in silence, afraid to seek help due to fear of judgment or discrimination.

It’s time to recognize that mental health is not a sign of weakness but a fundamental aspect of our overall well-being. Just as we prioritize physical health through exercise and proper nutrition, we must prioritize mental health through self-care and seeking support when needed. This applies to politicians and citizens alike.

Creating spaces where councils, administrators, and the public can constructively engage in discussions and even disagreements about improving the communities where we live, work, and play is essential. It is entirely fair and frankly natural, that the public give feedback to their elected representatives on matters of policy or legislation, etc., and even if that feedback is critical that is all fair, if done in a respectful and professional way. It’s when we cross the line that we tend to drag the mental health and emotions of our politicians with it.

As a community, we can take proactive steps to support the mental health of everyone in Red Deer. Supportive leadership is crucial: Hold our political leaders accountable for promoting mental health within their ranks. Implement policies that prioritize work-life balance, provide mental health resources, and support politicians in seeking help when needed.

Provide education and training on mental health awareness and resilience-building techniques. Empower individuals to recognize the signs of mental distress in themselves and others, and to take action to address it proactively. By coming together as a community to prioritize mental health, we can create a more resilient and compassionate society. Let us stand in solidarity with our politicians and citizens alike, supporting one another on the journey toward mental wellness.

In closing, I urge every resident of Red Deer to prioritize their mental health and reach out for support when needed. Together, we can build a community where mental well-being is valued, and no one suffers in silence. Let us embrace empathy, understanding, and compassion as we navigate the challenges of today’s world, knowing that we are stronger together.

Ken Johnston is the Mayor of Red Deer.