Personal mental health the greatest pandemic challenge for politicians, too

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Personal mental health the greatest pandemic challenge for politicians, too
After my first column, I asked readers to suggest topics they would like to see me write about. Pietro Mercuri asked me how the pandemic made the job of a politician more difficult.

To answer you directly Pietro, my mental health. For a period of several months, it was as if the spectre of death stalked me from week to week. Let us never forget that we had some moments of great despair during the darkest days of the pandemic. Over 11,000 fellow Quebecers have lost their lives to COVID and sadly there were many people who I know that lost a loved one. In my job, I watch and read the news constantly, so escaping COVID news and numbers was next to impossible. I would worry about my wife, my family, my friends, my constituents or even myself catching this terrible disease and having the worst possible outcome happen. The COVID blues were very real and I don’t recall any other point in my life feeling days of melancholy, being completely numb to everything around me, then having days where I was encouraged and hopeful and just ready to carry on. I also missed my family and friends and the normalcy of life.

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Greg Kelley (@greg.kelley.jc)
Quebec MNA Gregory Kelley (Personal mental health the greatest pandemic challenge for politicians, too)

My job also did not always help with the COVID blues. Politics is a very emotional occupation. Not only is it by nature adversarial, leading to lots of negative debates and confrontation, we are also the direct link to our citizens who are having trouble accessing government services. Many of these citizens are in desperate situations with heartbreaking stories. Sometimes my team and I can help and sometimes we unfortunately cannot. If you are an empathetic person as I am, you take these things to heart. The pandemic amplified these heartbreaking stories and they were coming in wave upon wave, at times making me and my staff feel utterly helpless.

To provide some context, during the first and second waves, many of the private and public seniors residences in the West Island were overwhelmed by COVID. People would be reaching out to my office desperately asking for more staff to be sent to a grandparent who had been left unattended to for days, or citizens who would call a residence and not be able to find out any information about a loved one, about whether they were dead or alive. I did not think in 2018 when I was elected that I would ever be in such a situation and there were many days when my staff — Jennifer, Logan, Nick and Nicky — played social worker and psychologist to constituents as I worked the phone and Zoom lines trying to get more resources for these people. 

As we come out of this almost two-year-long struggle against COVID, I have been reflecting quite a lot about what our society just went through. Quebec is currently in the midst of a mental health crisis, and this crisis has impacted me and many of my colleagues. Like everyone who will read this column, the pandemic has pushed many people’s mental health to the limits. Through conversations with colleagues from all political parties, I know many of us have struggled at times while coping with the management of the pandemic. 

View this post on Instagram A post shared by Greg Kelley (@greg.kelley.jc)
Quebec MNA Gregory Kelley (Personal mental health the greatest pandemic challenge for politicians, too)

Some colleagues of mine have very vocal anti-pandemic forces in their ridings. They have been, and their staff, physically and verbally intimidated for months. I also find social media is nastier than ever. We have seen the online death threats against Premier François Legault and the nasty racist insults against my leader Dominique Anglade. I have had to have the police intervene with people at my office after one disgruntled citizen sent threatening messages to me. When you see what happened to U.K. MP Sir David Amess, you understand why these threats are always taken seriously. These things weigh on you as you try to go about your daily business. It is not easy to just let it roll off your shoulders.

Ultimately, I believe rainy days will lead to sunny ways. I am very lucky to have a loving wife, family, friends and a stable job where I was able to go to work in person most days throughout the pandemic. Other people were not so fortunate. I never felt I needed to see a doctor for my mental health, but I knew at times I was not well either. I also was aware I was not alone because I had many conversations with constituents, family and friends who were in the same boat. It is why I am at least pleased to see mental health services are often debated in the National Assembly and it is a real priority of political parties. Solutions are on the table and the government is being pressed to act. When I started working in politics a decade ago, I would have been told to “man up”. At least today, regardless of gender, we are able to admit to each other we suffer at times, and as we talk about our challenges, we work through our suffering together. ■

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