Scott Morrison. Picture: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
Scott Morrison. Picture: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

‘I admit to that’: PM’s important confession

ONE of the most valuable pieces of advice Scott Morrison received before entering parliament had absolutely nothing to do with politics.

"It was about maintaining your relationships outside of the parliament, outside of your workplace," the Prime Minister tells news.com.au.

"Ensuring that you have time to spend with family and friends, I think, is critically important. You've got to be careful you don't isolate yourself in the challenges that you face. You've got to remain connected to people.

"I don't just mean those you work with, but particularly those outside your work, who can bring some balance and perspective to your life."

It feels weird to think of politicians as real people, with the same struggles and life pressures as the rest of us. But that's what they are.

Everyone has to be mindful of their mental health. Even the most powerful man in the country. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Everyone has to be mindful of their mental health. Even the most powerful man in the country. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

This isn't something we tend to talk about. Nobody is particularly keen to sympathise with politicians, after all. But politics is a monumentally stressful profession, and the mental health of those working within it often suffers.

Public humiliation is always one verbal slip-up away. The constant backstabbing fosters distrust, even among supposed allies. And while the adversarial nature of our political system exists for very good reason, it also creates hostility.

On top of that, the higher you rise in the ranks, the more time you have to spend separated from your loved ones.

It is, in other words, an environment that breeds anxiety.

This month, news.com.au is raising awareness for good mental health as part of its campaign Let's Make Some Noise. We are specifically highlighting the issue of anxiety and its cost to employers, the community, families and sufferers, in support of Beyond Blue.

In any given year, some 2.5 million Australians battle a type of anxiety disorder. It is now the most common mental illness in Australia, and the top condition that prompts people to visit their GP.

Even the confident and ambitious people who go into politics are not immune.

Mr Morrison freely admits it's a problem he faces.

"That comes with the job, and it always has. It's not unique to my position, or anyone else's for that matter. I mean, what you're talking about is being human. And, yes, I can happily admit to that, with the same vulnerabilities that others face," he says.

To some of you, that confession might seem trite. How could he not be anxious? Few jobs are as stressful as the prime ministership. The weight of responsibility would be enough on its own, and then there are the inevitable periods of unpopularity.

But it is hard to understate how valuable and important it is for public figures, such as the Prime Minister, to speak openly about this issue.

It sends a clear message to people suffering from anxiety - you are not alone. The most prominent and successful people in society have to deal with the same thing.

"The problem is that people sort of fold in on themselves. As the pressures mount, they withdraw even more, and what you need is the exact opposite," Mr Morrison says.

Anxiety is often accompanied by a sense of embarrassment or shame, which can quickly spiral into loneliness. Your first instinct is, as Mr Morrison says, to withdraw into yourself. Which brings the Prime Minister back to that critical piece of advice.

"Talk about it. Talk about it. That's the most important thing. And ensure that you're maintaining your relationships to have that opportunity to talk about it," he says.

Mr Morrison says his wife Jenny plays a vital role tending to those relationships.

"That's always been very important to Jenny and I. And look, Jenny is an enormous support in making sure that we do that, and that I remain connected in that way. Family and friends, my church community and all of these things are very important in maintaining balance in life.

"So much of the effort in recent times has been to destigmatise this area. Everything from R U OK Day, to everything that sits around that, is really about saying it is OK to talk about not being OK from time to time, and to share those feelings that you have. And that puts you on the right track for dealing with them.

"Internalising it can only create greater stress. And not just on your mental health. That can manifest itself in physical health problems as well."

 

Mr Morrison’s wife Jenny is an ‘enormous’ source of support for him. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images
Mr Morrison’s wife Jenny is an ‘enormous’ source of support for him. Picture: Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

The other thing that helps Mr Morrison stay balanced, and at least reasonably relaxed, is to maintain a consistent daily routine. For him, that means finding time for a swim.

"What I try to do is keep a fairly balanced routine, as much as is possible in this job. And getting some headspace by jumping in the pool and doing my laps most days, is probably one of the most important things I do in terms of managing that," he says.

"People obviously need me to be at my best, and in order to do that, I'm quite disciplined about ensuring that I have those opportunities built into my program. My team around me understand that very well, and they're very supportive of ensuring that, you know, if the PM doesn't get his swim he's going to be a bit grumpy.

"It's important that I get that time to just chill out and put myself in neutral for half an hour and focus more on my swimming stroke than on the many other things that I'm dealing with outside the pool."

Of course, anxiety is not always purely internal. It can be caused by other people, particularly in the workplace. Mr Morrison has a simple word to describe bosses and workplaces that don't provide sufficient support for mental health.

"They're dinosaurs," he says.

"I would hope that we've reached a tipping point on this issue in understanding and appreciating it. And not just from a human perspective, from an empathy point of view, but actually from a very practical perspective."

Anxiety can be a high cost to employers, especially to those who mishandle it. As a former federal treasurer, Mr Morrison is well placed to assess the problem.

"It's in the enterprise's interest for its people to be at their best and functioning as best as they can, and that means in their mental health capacity as much as their physical capacity," the Prime Minister says.

"The very success of their enterprises depend on it. I would think there's been a shift in that area. I would hope that shift is really gaining momentum.

"I mean we're a services economy now, substantively, which means we're an economy that's about people. People and their capabilities are really what is the bedrock of our economic opportunities in the future.

"So ensuring that we're well, not just physically but mentally, is very, very important."

 

If the Prime Minister of the country can spare 30 minutes a day to clear his head, the rest of us probably can as well. Picture: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
If the Prime Minister of the country can spare 30 minutes a day to clear his head, the rest of us probably can as well. Picture: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

Mr Morrison praises organisations such as Beyond Blue, Lifeline and Headspace for building awareness for Australians' mental health. But their work is not over, and neither is the government's.

"We are changing it. We are reforming it. And it's an ongoing task," he says of the mental health system.

"I never see these things as set and forget. Ever. It is a constant process of ensuring our systems evolve to meet the pressures and changes that are out there today."

The last federal budget included $737 million for mental health, the bulk of it going towards a youth mental health and suicide prevention strategy.

Thirty new Headspace centres are on the way, and Mr Morrison appointed Christine Morgan, the chief executive officer of the National Mental Health Commission, to a role as the government's national suicide prevention adviser.

"This is all about trying to build up a mental health resilience in the generations coming through now. We want to build that strength in children, so as they grow up and face the same pressures and in some cases heightened pressure in the future, they will be better equipped to deal with them," he says.


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