Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod’s public acknowledgment of her bipolar disorder and the fact she spent part of last spring’s election campaign hospitalized and in crisis was an “heroic” act that will help many others who are suffering, says the head of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Ontario.
“It took a tremendous amount of courage,” Camille Quenneville, CEO of CMHA Ontario said Tuesday. “I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with Lisa in the past and I can tell you that she did a tremendous service by speaking out, which was exceptionally brave.
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“She was so honest and genuine and really gracious about it. That’s going to help many people who are struggling, who are reluctant to speak out or to tell loved ones.”
MacLeod, 48, opened up about her struggles in a candid interview broadcast Monday night on TVO’s The Agenda. She told host Steve Paikin that she had thoughts of self-harm during the spring 2022 campaign, one she said she hadn’t even intended to enter. MacLeod told Paikin she wrote herself a letter on Feb. 23 to say she wouldn’t run again.
“But everything went so quick and I ended up in an election,” she said.
She was in crisis in May, a couple of weeks before the June 3 voting day.
“My mood wasn’t stable and I had some very serious self-harm thoughts,” she said.
“It was the worst nightmare for a politician: You’re in the middle of an election campaign with your psychiatrist taking layers of you away, trying to depoliticize you.
“I went through the last two weeks of the election campaign learning not to be a politician, while competing to keep my job.”
MacLeod was re-elected for the sixth time, despite staying nearly invisible during the campaign and serving a rocky four years in Premier Doug Ford’s cabinet. MacLeod was harshly criticized for her handling of the contentious autism file as social services minister, then after being demoted to tourism, had a profane altercation with former Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, for which she had to apologize.
Even Ford expressed his frustration with MacLeod when it became public during the campaign that she had been paid a $44,000 housing allowance by her riding association. MacLeod was passed over for cabinet after her re-election and almost immediately took a medical leave of absence.
MacLeod told Paikin the personal struggles she’s faced were “not something I had on my bingo card.”
“I really enjoyed my time in the cabinet. I enjoyed my time in the front bench in opposition. I loved being at community events. But some days I can’t get out of bed,” she said, wiping away tears.
MacLeod acknowledged on social media in October that she had been dealing with mental health issues. She gave a more detailed explanation of her struggles to Paikin, saying she felt it important to speak frankly about the topic and of her worries.
“As much as I want to talk about this and I have a platform and a podium to do so, I also think, ‘You know, I’m 48 years old. What’s my future going to look like? Will people vote for me again? Will people hire me? What do my daughter’s friends’ parents think of me because I have mental illness?’”
MacLeod said she’d had politicians from all parties offer her support, including Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes Conservative MPP Steve Clark, Ottawa Centre Liberal MP Yasir Naqvi, federal Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre and former Ottawa mayor Jim Watson.
“But also, it’s politics so when someone is weak, it’s an opportunity for someone else to get ahead,” she said, adding that she hopes to bring more understanding into politics “about people who are in crisis.”
“We have to bring safety back to politics,” she said, listing off a selection of current and former provincial politicians who’ve been targeted by protesters. MacLeod herself was given 24-hour police protection after she received death threats over her handling of the autism file.
“There should be no protest at Kathleen Wynne’s or Doug Ford’s homes, or Sam Oosterhoff’s or Christine Elliott’s, or mine,” she said. “That’s off limits.”
MacLeod’s experience highlights the mental health risks faced by all politicians, especially in the age of social media, Quenneville said.
“We know that people are struggling in every workplace and people will have a diagnosis similar in every workplace, but we also know that politics is very different. If there’s one venue or organization where people would feel less inclined to be honest and open about their own health, it’s politics.
“And yet, here she is, publicly stating that she has struggled and that she has sought treatment. It’s heroic from my perspective, as someone who works in mental health services.”
Politicians are increasingly citing the mental hazards of their jobs. Former Liberal cabinet minister and Ottawa Centre MP Catherine McKenna was a constant target of misogynistic abuse and current Government House Leader Mark Holland told a parliamentary committee last fall that he attempted suicide after an election defeat in 2011. Online harassment and threats are believed to have contributed to the burnout that led to this month’s sudden resignation of former New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“Without question, it (politics) is not psychologically safe for anyone,” Quenneville said. “We’ve all seen question period and what politicians go through. I think social media plays a role in that. People can be anonymous and nasty. That’s very worrisome.
“There’s a belief that it’s open season on elected official and you have a right to treat them badly. That has to change.”