When it comes to mental health, all’s fair in love and leafleting

We all feel it. Brexit is a battleground. It’s muddy trenches that stink to high heaven whichever side of it you’re on, and like sticky quicksand it’s near impossible to escape.

What’s more, the confrontational atmosphere is contributing to a mental health crisis in our political system, one that needs addressing fast.

For someone used to running fast-paced action days and writing punchy election literature, sometimes it can be hard not to view politics like a war. Elections become a battle of attrition. Your opponent is your enemy. Your leaflets are your ammunition. Your voters are a vital resource you must fight to defend.

That can be a helpful approach, for a day or two. But mostly, it’s unhealthy, and leads to entrenched and tribal politics that does no-one any good – the type of thinking we’re seeing a lot of today.

I was delivering for a local by-election recently and came across a Labour activist weighed down heavily with literature. She was struggling to enter an imposing block, one which I needed to get through as well, and we stopped to chat.

It was obvious she was weary. She’d been out much of the day. We talked about how the campaign had been going, and I gave her a sip of water and a couple of tips on getting past that intercom buzzer and into stubborn blocks. Then, after a quick joke about not wishing each other too much luck, we parted ways.

Later, I thought back to that lonely Labour activist. I was just a visitor to the campaign, but she had been out for weeks. Despite our different political persuasions, I felt empathy for her, and the mental and physical strain the campaign must have been having.

It got me thinking that, for many of us, this strain is only getting worse.

We know Brexit is affecting mental health in politics. A recent episode of the Times Red Box podcast interviewed MPs and staffers to reveal the scale of the strain they’re under. It’s been reported that Mind is issuing wellbeing advice to those who work in Westminster.

I’ve written before about mental health amid a tough election campaign, and we all know people in politics who have dealt admirably with things like panic attacks at work or the impact of poor mental health on their wider wellbeing.

But the seemingly unending upheaval of the Brexit debate and the confrontation and caricature it brings is something else.

As for a solution, there’s hope of an armistice yet. Generally, Britain is improving in attitudes to mental health support. We’ve made progress on mental health at work, more people are learning mental health first aid, and organisations like the Mental Health Foundation offer brilliant resources that anyone can use to support themselves or others.

Campaigners on different sides of the divide can do their bit by respecting and supporting each other. We must avoid seeing politics as a battle to be won.

As the party’s recent local election broadcast highlights, we’re a divided nation. If one thing to come out of Brexit is an acknowledgement that campaigners can and should have empathy for each other, at least it won’t all have been for nothing.

* Matt campaigns with the Southwark Liberal Democrats and was Eastleigh’s Constituency Organiser in 2015. He tweets about politics, mental health and social care @MattDolman.