Batting away abuse as an MP is almost a full-time job – and it is draining

When I wake up in the morning, I never know how I’m going to react to the abuse I get that day.  

Sometimes I’ll laugh at the racists but other times I can take their cruelty to heart. It’s easier now to try and ignore them, however, at the beginning when I first became an MP, I wasn’t expecting abuse to be such a big part of the job.  

As soon as I was elected in 2005, the impact on my mental health was almost immediate. I had to contend with those in Parliament who struggled to believe that I was an MP, I had people critiquing what I was wearing and others commenting on my looks.  

When your presence in a space is constantly questioned, it can be hard.  

Over time – especially with the world of social media – these comments have morphed into something else. I’ve spoken before about the constant death threats I receive and the racism, sexism and hatred that my team and I have to contend with.  

Because, sadly, that has become part of the parcel of becoming an MP. When I speak to my peers, we’ve all experienced it. It could be because of our size, our age, our gender, our race – the abuse is non-stop. In fact, I have a whole folder of my inbox filled with it.  

It’s also so difficult to just have to swallow it. As a public figure, you’re judged on whatever you say.  

Imagine somebody was to come up to you on the street and shout at you, you’d probably say something back and be able to walk away. As an MP it can feel like you can’t respond at all – you just have to pretend it never happened.  

Fortunately, as MPs we have a support system in place if we need to speak to anyone, and my team are just so fantastic.  

They filter the worst of the hate I receive so I’m not bombarded with it, but on the odd occasion I do see it before they do, I get a lot of satisfaction from the mute and block button.  

If my job wasn’t about helping people and making society and the country better then it wouldn’t be worth it

I realised as soon as this abuse became a regular part of my life that I would have to take steps to protect my mental health wellbeing.  

I take time away from social media, I talk it out with friends. I try not to internalise what I’m going though. 

But I also try and balance out the bad by doing something good. On a rubbish day, I’ll make a random connection with someone who sent me something nice by email or social media, and I’ll engage with them.  

And as well as the abuse folder, I have the ‘nice things’ folder, which thankfully far outweighs the negative. So when I’m having a really terrible day, I will go into that folder and just read some of the messages. They centre me and remind me why I do what I do.  

Because if my job wasn’t about helping people and making society and the country better – if I didn’t love London and where I live – then it wouldn’t be worth it. Not for all the money in the world.  

This week, I want to talk about my mental health, because everybody should. We all have mental health, and sometimes it’s good, other times it’s bad.  

I think it’s quite easy to assume that people in the public eye might have life made and our mental health is always fine, but it’s a spectrum for everyone.  

This past year has been so incredibly tough, so now more than ever it’s essential we talk about what we’re all going through.  

I remember, in the very early stages of the pandemic, I was getting all the numbers in about the amount of people who had died in my constituency, Brent. I was hearing from people daily who had lost their parents to the virus and weren’t able to say goodbye.  

My heart broke as they told me how the last time they saw their parents was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. I thought about them having to grieve by themselves.  

I messaged my team and said to them, ‘I really can’t do any work today because I can’t function’

On the third day of bad news – my third day of working 18 hours straight – I went to bed and I couldn’t sleep because everything was going round and round in my head.  

The next day, I couldn’t get out of bed. I messaged my team and said to them, ‘I really can’t do any work today because I can’t function’. It was the weight of everything.  

I found myself unable to stop crying. It felt like bad news overload and I felt helpless against this virus that was killing my constituents.

By taking that day off for my mental wellbeing, I allowed myself to go back into work the next day feeling better equipped to help my team and constituents in whatever way they needed me.  

I came to terms with the fact that I may not have any control over the virus, but I could help my constituents stay safe, or help them say goodbye to their loved ones.

I encourage everyone in my office to do the same. If they need time out, I make sure they take it. No one needs to pretend they’re OK when they’re not.  

I think more workplaces, coming out of lockdown, should be considering this more. As long as the work gets done, what’s the problem with allowing more flexibility to allow for mental health? 

I am quite concerned about the mental health impact that the past year will have. I think going forward, it needs to be a top priority: we should have mental health practitioners in every school, college and workplace.  

I also want to see the Online Harms Bill passed. It would see social media companies take responsibility for abusive content. It removes the onus from the receiver having to log it and report it.  

And I would like to get rid of the phrase, ‘it does not meet the threshold [needed to take action]’. This is a get-out clause for allowing some abuse to remain online.

It’s sadly the case that people don’t always stick to the #BeKind message, so having abusers being dealt with a lot more harshly, would be a big positive step. I would personally like to see their social media accounts being taken away from them, 

When I was first elected, I didn’t want to talk about the abuse I received because I thought it was best to keep it private and I didn’t want others to join in the attacks.  

Now I know how essential it is to speak out and seek support. No one should have to suffer in silence.  

Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover

This year, to mark Mental Health Awareness Week, Metro.co.uk has invited eight well-known mental health advocates to take over our site.

With a brilliant team that includes Alex Beresford, Russell Kane, Frankie Bridge, Anton Ferdinand, Sam Thompson, Scarlett Moffatt, Katie Piper and Joe Tracini, each of our guest editors have worked closely with us to share their own stories, and also educate, support and engage with our readers.

If you need help or advice for any mental health matter, here are just some of the organisations that were vital in helping us put together our MHAW Takeover:

  • Mental Health Foundation
  • Rethink Mental Illness
  • Samaritans
  • Mind

To contact any of the charities mentioned in the Metro.co.uk MHAW Takeover click here

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