For those of you who haven’t caught the news, the media is reporting that Jami-Lee Ross has been taken to an Auckland facility to treat a mental health problem. I’m going to be focusing on that angle of the story in this post, and largely not on JLR’s abusive behaviour, or the political implications for a moment, because I think it’s a discussion we need to have, so I’m coming out of the woodwork despite finding it difficult to find time to post with my new job.
The Herald implied police were involved, and they are refusing to comment, which implies that he has in fact been sectioned. (the term comes from an earlier version of the legislation involved from before this process had its own Act, where there were relevant sections of the Mental Health Act to deal with involuntary treatment) The important thing to take away from this is that this does mean it is true that Jami-Lee is very seriously unwell. There were some other implications to the way this was initially reported that I’m deliberately not mentioning, as I’d like to reserve judgement for now, but let’s just say this situation is very distressing for a number of reasons. I’m going to talk about just one of them, and that is because there has been a presumably deliberate whispering campaign going on to imply that Jami-Lee Ross was not credible because he’s unwell.
That his credibility was undermined because of his mental health could be true, it could also not be true. (either way, it’s not helped by having a pitched political battle in public, or by publicly calling those issues out as “sensitive” or “embarassing”. If you don’t know how to describe something discreetly to people when it’s actually none of their business, don’t describe it, Simon) There are some mental health disorders that make it difficult for a reasonable observer to believe what someone says, such as those where someone is very disconnected from reality, or lies pathologically, but most mental health disorders don’t actually affect someone’s credibility on a topic they’re an expert on when they’re in a relatively stable mental state. There’s also the possibility that, to paraphrase, “just because he’s paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get him,” at least to some extent. It’s really insidious to use mental health as a way to discredit someone when it might not directly affect his allegations, and the stereotype that all mental health conditions make someone reliable is something that people have been fighting against for a while, and I am frankly incensed at the National Party for engaging in this sort of ignorance-driven campaign. If Jami-Lee is as unwell as these events suggest, that is a thoroughly insensitive way to deal with it that simply makes matters worse, both from a PR and a valuing-human-beings perspective.
It’s also very personally distressing for people like me, who have had struggles with our mental health, and I hope you’ll excuse me going briefly autobiographical to introduce you to this issue a bit. Mine wasn’t particularly serious. I haven’t been suicidal since I was a teenager, and that was for “being a teenager” reasons, not mental illness reasons, and fortunately I didn’t do myself any physical harm at the time. (This is also the very first time I’ve ever mentioned it outside of confidences, so I hope you’ll excuse me for not wanting to go into detail- no further questions will be answered, thanks, I’m quite safe and in no danger of feeling that way right now) I’ve had things pretty light as people with mental illness go, but there’s still a stigma when anyone hears about it. People will still call you crazy, and discredit what you say. I still have to deal with my issues recurring from time to time, although the main vector for my anxieties is under control. My symptoms include panic attacks both light (eg. “getting unreasonably pedantic about something you don’t think is a big issue”) and severe, (eg. “gasping for breath in the foetal position because I can’t see a way out of a particularly stressful situation”) being more tired than usual, (I find it hard not to subconsciously clench my muscles, which makes me tired) irregular sleep patterns and insomnia, and so forth. I get a lot better with exercise, like most people with anxiety-related conditions do, and light social contact. (light in my case because I’m also an introvert and find it exhausting sometimes, which means I have coping rules about how much I need to get out so I can stop myself from withdrawing socially as a self-destructive coping mechanism. This is the sort of shit we deal with to stop our problems from coming back, and as I said, mine is relatively minor)
I know the Right now likes to joke about the idea of content warnings as getting “triggered,” getting our feelings hurt as if we’re emotionally fragile, but it’s a concept that has to do with having lived through traumatic events and finding it difficult to deal with certain topics being discussed because they cause us to re-live trauma, and that vulnerability is very common for people with mental illness, especially as it can be caused by traumatic events, where the term “triggered” originally came from. (although it’s out of favour now, probably in no small part due to the sneering tone it’s used in nowadays) A lot of people in our little New Zealand community online of people who’ve struggled with mental health are having to tag out of this discussion for very similar reasons because the very topic of being sectioned is incredibly distressing to think about, even though those having to make these assessments try to handle them with care, empathy, and professionalism, and it’s a Really High Bar To Clear to get sectioned. I will admit the prospect scares the shit out of me, and I have come nowhere close to needing it, but my particular damage is anxiety-related, and anxiety doesn’t always listen to calmly being told what’s reasonable or not reasonable, you just tend to catastrophize regardless when you’re not coping well, or your particular vulnerabilities come up. The fear that someone will take me somewhere against my will for being unwell, even if I know I’m competent enough to make my own decisions, is very real, and something some other people live with and have absolute justification for, especially if they’ve been suicidal in a way that relates to their own issues before. The tricky thing here is that while intervention is sometimes needed for people’s well-being, we also actually have to be quite careful, because many of these interventions can be incredibly traumatic for everyone involved, too, especially ones that involve police, so making them unnecessarily can actually sabotage someone’s ability to cope or their recovery, and alarm or upset their family members severely.
This is something really serious. It’s beyond playing games with, and we shouldn’t tolerate anyone trying to bring more politics into this before there’s evidence it was there to start with. Let’s take a moment, and realise that someone who was supposed to be one of the leaders in our country has had to be taken for treatment against his will, and how very serious this situation is, and how we got here. Let’s be humans first, and care about the people involved- even if you have lost all sympathy for Ross, he has a family, and they might not necessarily all agree with all of his politics, so let’s at least treat them with sensitivity. There will be questions to be answered about the constitutional issues, no doubt, (we have a procedure for dealing with revelations of serious mental illness in politicians, fortunately) as taking such an action against a politician is never entirely devoid of political context, even assuming it was his family who referred this issue to the appropriate authorities- I hope this can be done sensitively and with respect for Mr. Ross’ privacy, regardless of what I think of his conduct in other matters, he still deserves to have autonomy over his medical privacy inasmuch as it doesn’t affect his ability to do his job- and in that sense, all we really need is a “yes” or a “no” from a qualified person.
This happened at least in part because there were serious warning signs in someone’s behaviour, but it was covered up to prevent reputational damage both to him and his party. Stigmatizing dealing with mental health problems early forces those of us struggling with them into the shadows and encourages this sort of hiding. National shouldn’t have been concealing this situation for political reasons in the first place, as the right course of action for someone who is unwell hurting others is to hold us accountable if we’re in a position to understand what we’ve done, (and I doubt Mr Ross wasn’t given he would have been extremely high-functioning if he was unwell) and take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again in a way that is sensitive to that person’s ability to recover. (which can include an inability to recover- some mental health conditions are chronic, and others aren’t, but there are cases where there simply aren’t the practical elements needed to facilitate a recovery. It will depend on the situation) This is handily also the thing that needed to be done to deal with the abusive behaviour problem, so maybe it would have been a really good idea?
The talk on this topic thus far has been an odd mix of some people attempting to use Ross’ mental health as a shield against any allegations rubbing off onto the National Party or Ross himself, (which is thoroughly inappropriate, as people who selected him, it was even more their responsibility to support and help him through or out of this situation in a responsible manner, and obviously as a functioning adult, Ross is responsible for his own behaviour, even when he is compelled to destructive patterns more than usual because of mental illness) people insisting that selecting a person with a mental health condition is categorically inappropriate, (not true, many of us who have faced one can recover completely and cope with the risk factors that got us there in the first place, and many others live the same way people facing physical accessibility issues do, by focusing on what we can do well rather than on what we can’t do, and seeking reasonable accommodations for those things where what we can’t do means we need certain things beyond what’s considered “normal” to function, like say, reduced hours, flexible conditions, more leave, etc…) and from time to time some sensible voices crying out into the dark giving us perspective.
I will say that I’m proud to be part of a party that openly selected someone for a high position on our list who publicly discussed what this is like from first-hand experience, and I thought that person was brave, and that it was great that, for one very brief moment at our zenith before our troubles started last election, it looked like the Greens might just squeak them into Parliament. (I haven’t named this person because I have been informed they’re not going to run again and therefore I’d rather any re-entry into the spotlight be for a different reason, but they are excellent and you would have been proud to have had them in Parliament, assuming you like the rest of our caucus, anyway) I think it’s actually really important we get someone who is coping with some of this stuff into parliament, because just like the other parts of the disability community, (which I will admit I’m thoroughly isolated from outside of mental health, because there are limited hours in the day, especially for those of us who need them to worry about everything obsessively. Okay, that got a little dark suddenly) those of us dealing with mental health problems aren’t damaged, we’re resilient. We have capabilities, and we have weaknesses, just like anyone else. We have learned to deal with things that we arguably shouldn’t have to, and while it hasn’t necessarily made us stronger in every case, it gives us a different but valuable perspective from the lessons we’ve learned.
Back to sectioning, this is the “nuclear option” of getting someone treated. Most people dealing with mental illness can make our own decisions about any treatment we might require, with accountability or assistance from a trusted friend or family member, those who need this sort of extreme intervention are outliers. If you’re looking for warning signs of more typical conditions, a good general list is available on the Mental Health foundation’s site. It’s quite possible Ross was very high-functioning but had an underlying issue that looked very similar to simply Being A Politician, as it’s a very toxic environment in mental health terms that tends to attract people who already have a certain type of self-assured confidence and resilience to negative feedback, but it’s important we don’t think we can back-seat diagnose him, as it’s difficult enough to do with personal contact, so this is why dealing with his abusive behaviour was important, and why warnings that treating abusive behaviour as Normal Parts Of Politics aren’t just so much hippy noise, but actually a very real caution that we’re potentially putting people in really unhealthy situations into senior leadership positions, because the age-old joke is unfortunately quite wise: “You don’t have to be mad to work there, but it helps.” This is why Greens want to change how we do politics, not just who’s in charge.
If you do run into someone you’re worried about in your life, please be understanding and listen, but hold them accountable for the effects of their behaviour, too. We need assertive compassion if our issues are spilling over to affect other people. We need your understanding. But we’re also whole people who can offer valuable insight, who can be your colleagues and do a great job at it, (hell, sometimes our coping strategies make us better workers) and yes, we could even be among your leaders, and if we did it openly and bravely, instead of being enabled and entitled, we could do a good job. There are good resources out there for mental health, and the stories about this have been doing a good job of providing links to them.