We need to do more to protect councillors’ mental health

15 March 2024
By Councillor Jo Harding, Trafford Council Cabinet Member

As a mental health champion, I was delighted to speak at the North West launch of the Mentally Healthier Councils Network a few months ago.

This is a network aimed at supporting councillors and council officers to come together, learn, to influence and innovate.

This got me thinking about some of my recent experiences as a councillor that have sadly had quite a negative impact on my mental wellbeing.

In my 12 years as a councillor, there has been the odd occasion where I have dealt with conflict, people fed up with bin collections being missed, parking complaints and potholes. A strongly worded email or a robust conversation on the phone, but it would always be resolved and diffused.

But the last three years have seen me dealing with three restraining orders taken out against members of the public who saw fit to target me and make me the victim of their rage and anger. I know from speaking with other councillors that I am not alone. Colleagues have reported street harassment and online abuse.

There is a real and very scary sense of the ‘dehumanising’ of councillors, in fact of politicians in general. I am not sure if this is attributable to a post-Covid world, the cost-of-living crisis, a serious mistrust in politicians etc, but it needs to stop.

As councillors we enter a world of public service, most definitely not for the money. Most people don’t know that we are not employees of the Council, that we do not have any kind of job description, and that most of us must work alongside the role to ensure some kind of financial stability. That said, I feel hugely privileged to serve my community and 99% of the time enjoy my role immensely. It is a role like no other.

My recent experiences, with one of the offenders turning up at my home, have left me much more anxious as I go about my daily life as a councillor. I have felt fragile and on edge. In a role that is public-facing and relies on me being out and about in my community, this doesn’t feel like a great place to be.

One of the advantages of being a local councillor means that we tend to be very well known in our communities, often attending events, hosting surgeries and being accessible. I don’t want this to change as that is the whole point, residents feel able to approach us so that we can support them. What’s harder to tolerate is being the subject of an angry resident’s vitriol. We are after all citizens and – most importantly – human beings.

We are entitled to opinions and thoughts of our own and it is only right that if we breach the code of conduct, we face consequences. But we cannot be a whipping boy for all the public’s rage at the world.

I love what I do, and I want to continue being active in local government. Councillors really are at the coal face and make life better for a lot of people. I do not want to feel vulnerable or be shouted at in the street.

For councillors to be an advocate and a strong voice for our residents, we must feel mentally healthy and well supported. There are some conversations that must take place with communities about the role of a councillor, what we can and can’t influence and, importantly, that a zero-tolerance approach to abuse will be taken. For other councillors out there: do report any issues of abuse that you endure. This is the only way that we will start to flag up the rise in the issues and find some solutions to address them. And importantly, do what you need to do to remove yourself from some of the stresses of council life: find your hinterland and make networks outside of politics. Finally, you can join Centre for Mental Health’s great Mentally Healthier Councils Network to share best practice and find support among peers.

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