I’m Worried About Our Elected Officials

Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

As a former teacher, I thought running for the school board would help give back to the educational community, which I hold dear. I ordered the lawn signs, got the petition signatures, attended the candidate events, talked to countless people to find out what was important to them for our local public schools, and got myself elected.

Fast forward to March 2020. I was the school board Vice-President and President-elect, so while the world was shutting down, it was not for the school board. Navigating an unprecedented global pandemic and a very changing political climate started to reveal the true colors of my community, neighbors, former colleagues, and “friends.”

As a board, we knew there was not going to be one response that made everyone happy but we genuinely did our best by eliciting medical and public health advice from local, state, and national agencies to ensure every decision was made with due diligence. I was well aware that adults overall lack critical skills for skilled disagreement, but I had no idea just how much.

We quickly started to see more emails, phone calls, and snail mail, in some cases, per day than we had received in years combined. For every opinion we received, we had just as many with the exact opposite view. While many were respectful and understanding that, as school board members, the challenges of a pandemic were new to us as well, some were vicious and scary at best, including name-calling, personal attacks, and so much anger. While I never personally received a death threat, I know other elected officials that have.

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Once I became school board president, it only felt more scary. Even without a direct threat, the seething anger that came at me at all hours, day or night, on weekends, at the grocery store, and comments to my children by other parents, teachers, and students. It had me on high alert. I made sure our doors were locked all of the time, I started screening my calls, and I was more jittery than usual, knowing that a lot of anger had turned personal.

The worst of it came from those that I ignorantly expected to do better, including a medical professional, other elected officials that were hell-bent on hijacking this into a political narrative, parents of my kids’ friends, former colleagues, community leaders, and their partners. It was constant, and it took a toll.

It quickly started to impact my mental health. I was struggling to sleep, my anxiety was through the roof, I was struggling to concentrate, and I found myself jumping at the most minor things. It affected my ability to be fully present in my full-time job, at home, and with my friends and loved ones. I intentionally tried to counter the stress with meditation, journaling, and exercise, but I was also using food and alcohol to help numb my increasingly overwhelming feelings.

I ended up getting help from my therapist. I stopped drinking until my stress level decreased and relied more heavily on my healthy coping skills instead of numbing, resulting in not only feeling better but losing 60 pounds as an added bonus.

Hearing about politics and elected officials can immediately induce negative thoughts and frustration toward politicians, and while some are probably more than deserving of the angst, there is a vilification of all politicians that is not without consequences.

For too long, the mental health of our elected officials has been overlooked or ignored. Yet, with the pressures of public office, our officials risk experiencing high-stress levels, pressure to perform, and public scrutiny. All of these factors, if untreated, can have damaging and dangerous outcomes on the mental health of our elected leaders, which ends up impacting all of us.

John Fetterman on CBS Sunday morning discussing depression & recovery

Most recently, John Fetterman, United States Senator from Pennsylvania, took a medical leave for depression, eliciting praise and criticism from the media and social media comments. If Senator Fetterman had a heart attack, he would not face the same ire he did for treating his brain health.

I would argue that while we do not collect data on lives saved, Senator Fetterman’s public conversations and vulnerability on mental health are helping to normalize a stigmatized topic. I strongly believe his hospitalization saved the lives of others that were inspired to get help, too.

He is not alone in struggling with mental health. A study in the Journal of Health & Social Behavior indicated that elected officials have higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, than the general population, while multiple studies across the world show a higher level of stress in elected officials negatively impacting their mental health including increased levels of anxiety & depression.

How Stress Impacts the Body

Our bodies are naturally wired to use stress as a survival mechanism. Imagine you are in a forest when you see a bear. Your body is wired to turn on the alarm, a physiological response, to high-tail it out of the woods. Your brain automatically shuts off all non-essential functions and goes into survival mode. After you are safe, your stress alarm turns off, your parasympathetic goes into a restorative mode, and you go about your life.

When we have chronic ongoing stress, that alarm never gets to go off, so your body continues to release stress hormones, namely cortisol. Over time, cortisol can wreak havoc on your body, increasing your likelihood of heart disease, cancer, digestive issues, memory problems, and substance abuse, just to name a few. A more significant issue is the chronic stress you’re facing today isn’t just impacting you tomorrow. The impact on your body can be felt decades later when it’s too late to go back and reduce that stress to preserve your health.

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Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

It’s no secret that elected officials are under a high degree of scrutiny, and this can take a toll on their psychological well-being. For example, a study published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law found that elected officials experience higher stress and anxiety levels than the general population. In addition, according to a survey conducted by the National League of Cities, 63% of elected officials reported that their job had a negative impact on their personal and family life.

Trying to please their constituents, tackle complex problems, make difficult decisions, and manage multiple responsibilities can lead to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and burnout. In addition, in the age of social media, it is hard to escape the thoughts and opinions of the general public. The impact of judgment and criticism can lead to a feeling of isolation, fear, and anxiety.

The sharp increase in violence toward elected officials is even more concerning, including threats, intimidation, and assaults. This includes governmental officials, judges, public health employees, and educators. In a National League of Cities (NLC) survey, 87% of local officials report increased attacks, with 81% personally experiencing harassment, threats, or physical violence.

The escalation of violence and threats are traumatic for those experiencing it. However, that trauma is not without consequences. The moment a trauma occurs, the brain and body are forever changed. According to the Boston Clinical Trials PTSD study, “Every cell records memories and every embedded, trauma-related neuropathway has the opportunity to repeatedly reactivate” (Rosenthal, 2019). The trauma immediately creates dysregulation, especially with the amygdala, hippocampus, and an increase in cortisol. Over time the body and mind can find healing, but not without time, feeling safe, connection with others, and, in many cases, professional help.

The mental health of elected officials is essential not only for the individuals in question but for the health of our societies as a whole.

Photo credit: National League of Cities, 2022

Addressing Mental Health Among Elected Officials

The mental health of elected officials is of utmost importance, yet too often, this aspect is overlooked both in bureaucracy and in support from the public.

Before I continue, let me be clear that being stressed, experiencing trauma, being burned out, or having any mental health issues does not prevent or reduce anyone’s ability to be an outstanding elected official. Unaddressed can have consequences for the official and those they are trying to serve. The stigma and fear of getting help only make it worse.

For individuals in public office, mental health issues can lead to significant decreases in productivity, impair judgment, and create further distress for the official. Studies have demonstrated that the stress of public office can profoundly impact the mental health of elected officials, leading them to suffer negative emotions, increased feelings of depression and anxiety, and feelings of alienation or isolation. The consequences of these issues can cause irreparable damage to their emotional and physical well-being and their capacity to perform their job as elected officials.

There are several ways to ensure elected officials can care for their mental health needs. First, it is essential to create an atmosphere where those in the office can open up about their mental health struggles without fear of repercussions or career jeopardy. This may involve offering mental health counseling services or creating a support network for elected officials. Additionally, developing policies that provide clear guidelines for recognizing and addressing mental health concerns among elected officials may be helpful.

Elected officials need to be vigilant with boundaries, including those with their time, energy, and space, but also make sure they morally and ethically believe in what they are advancing. Moral distress can cause guilt, regret, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and burnout. One of the hardest lessons I have learned is that only some genuinely care about me as much as how I can help them. Without firm boundaries, I could end up sacrificing the fabric of who I am to please someone else or avoid conflict.

Finally, it is vital to take a holistic approach to address mental health among elected officials. This means recognizing that mental health is a holistic issue and not solely a matter of individual well-being. It also means creating an environment that considers the systemic and institutional issues impacting the mental health of those in public office. Finally, this includes recognizing the role that gender and other social determinants play in the mental health of elected officials and ensuring their needs are appropriately addressed.

 
Addressing Mental Health of Our Elected Officials

The mental health of elected officials is of utmost importance, yet too often, this aspect is overlooked both in bureaucracy and in support from the public.

Before I continue, let me be clear that being stressed, experiencing trauma, being burned out, or having any mental health issues does not prevent or reduce anyone’s ability to be an outstanding elected official. Unaddressed can have consequences for the official and those they are trying to serve. The stigma and fear of getting help only make it worse.

For individuals in public office, mental health issues can lead to significant decreases in productivity, impair judgment, and create further distress for the official. Studies have demonstrated that the stress of public office can profoundly impact the mental health of elected officials, leading them to suffer negative emotions, increased feelings of depression and anxiety, and feelings of alienation or isolation. The consequences of these issues can cause irreparable damage to their emotional and physical well-being and their capacity to perform their job as elected officials.

There are several ways to ensure elected officials can care for their mental health needs. First, it is essential to create an atmosphere where those in the office can open up about their mental health struggles without fear of repercussions or career jeopardy. This may involve offering mental health counseling services or creating a support network for elected officials. Additionally, developing policies that provide clear guidelines for recognizing and addressing mental health concerns among elected officials may be helpful.

Elected officials need to be vigilant with boundaries, including those with their time, energy, and space, but also make sure they morally and ethically believe in what they are advancing. Moral distress can cause guilt, regret, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and burnout. One of the hardest lessons I have learned is that only some genuinely care about me as much as how I can help them. Without firm boundaries, I could end up sacrificing the fabric of who I am to please someone else or avoid conflict.

Finally, it is vital to take a holistic approach to address mental health among elected officials. This means recognizing that mental health is a holistic issue and not solely a matter of individual well-being. It also means creating an environment that considers the systemic and institutional issues impacting the mental health of those in public office. This includes recognizing the role that gender and other social determinants play in the mental health of elected officials and ensuring their needs are appropriately addressed.

10 Strategies for Every Elected Official to Optimize Their Mental Health

  1. Just because you say you’re fine doesn’t mean that you are: You have most likely normalized high levels of stress as your “fine,” but you very well may not be. Consider what data sources you have, including everything from what data is on your phone (steps, screen time, etc.) to doctor reports, loved ones’ comments, how much time you’re working versus doing things that bring you joy, what you’re eating, how much you’re moving your body, and use these to help determine if you’re truly “fine.”
  2. Let go of what isn’t serving you: You’re under a lot of pressure to make a lot of people happy. We live in a wild world that continues to up the ante for you to do what many others want you to do. At some point, you need to draw a line in the sand and let go of the people, situations, and things that are not elevating you. While you have an obligation to constituents, you can be present and available with vigilant boundaries, including how and when people can access you.
  3. Stay true to yourself: Keep sight of who you are at your core and who you want to be. Reflecting on your past and understanding how you’ve developed the habits and patterns you currently have will help you plan your next steps for living the life you deserve. We compromise our own wellness when we compromise who we are. Unless you have become emotionally void, the compromised integrity will slowly erode you from the inside out.
  4. Use evidence-based practices: Take time and try new things you may have never done to see what works for you. Pay attention to evidence-based practices versus what someone told you to do on social media. Some strong starters are meditation, journaling, moving your body, gratitude, and deep breathing. Remember when you first try something new the muscle memory of your neuropathways will challenge it. It takes 66 days to make a new habit so keep trying even if only for a couple of minutes each day. Even the small time increments matter.
  5. Envision your ideal life: Are you living for yourself or trying to please or get the approval of others? There’s a big difference. Write down your ideal life, your vision, and your mission to help guide your path. Then take that written vision statement and post it on your bathroom mirror for a daily reminder of where you are heading.
  6. Use your perfectionism as your superpower: Perfectionism is not inherently wrong, depending on our motives. Are we doing it because it brings us great joy or because we are running from failure? Big difference. Part of being an effective perfectionist is recentering our intentions and our many ambitious commitments back to ourselves. You will make mistakes along the way, but you need to give yourself a lot of grace, be kind to yourself, and practice self-compassion.
  7. Boundaries need to be your best friend: I would argue this is the biggest issue and most powerful strategy for most leaders. Leaders are not sitting passively and watching life pass by. You are a mover and a shaker but you cannot constantly be in a sprint and expect to be able to remain effective for the long haul. People will take the opportunity to encroach on your space, energy, and peace as often as you allow it. You are an elected official which means you serve constituents. In order to do that effectively, you do not owe them 24–7 access to you. Consider boundaries like, “I do not have the capacity for that. I am available from XX-XX. I want to hear more about this but cannot fully give you my attention right now, so let’s set up an appointment during my office hours.”
  8. Lean into your social support: Be very careful and wise with who you allow into your close circle of support. Make sure you choose those that consistently elevate you and are champions of all things you. Then once you have that close, trusted circle, you have to be able to unconditionally lean into them even for quick vent sessions. They are ready and willing to support you, but you have to trust them enough not to worry you are a burden. These are your people, so trust they have got your back.
  9. Nourish yourself: Your body is like a garden, so you cannot just plant the seed and walk away. Instead, you need to consistently show up for yourself to evaluate what you need and then make sure you give it to yourself. Your body and mind need your vigilance, so be very intentional in pouring into yourself regularly, not just when you feel yourself needing it.
  10. Get help: It is a sign of strength to get help before you think you need it. If you even remotely think you need it, talk to someone. As a leader, we need you to help normalize mental health by talking about it more and encouraging others to get help, but most important is being a model for mental wellness, which also may include being vulnerable and brave so your constituents will when they need help, too.

Are our elected officials perfect? No, but we need them to be healthy. Therefore, they must prioritize their wellness with robust prevention and utilize resources to get support.

Interested in learning more about yourself and how to lead with passion and purpose without sacrificing your well-being? I’m ready to help. Start by finding out your wellness type here or have me speak to your group!

Join my email list for weekly evidence-based holistic strategies to lead with purpose & passion without sacrificing your own well-being.

Jennifer Ulie, Ph.D.

Jennifer Ulie, Ph.D.

2x Founder, CEO, Motivational Speaker, Author, Teacher, PhD, and Geek about holistic health and evidence-based practices to help people unlock the best parts of themselves again. Follow @mymensana.

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