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Golriz Ghahraman’s resignation sparks call for mental health action at Parliament

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By Giles Dexter and Russell Palmer of RNZ

Mental health experts are calling for a bipartisan effort at Parliament to further increase protections for MPs and workers, after Green MP Golriz Ghahraman’s resignation.

Ghahraman quit Parliament on Tuesday after multiple accusations of shoplifting, saying stress relating to her work had led her to act in ways that were out of character.

“I am not trying to excuse my actions, but I do want to explain them … the mental health professional I see says my recent behaviour is consistent with recent events giving rise to extreme stress response, and relating to previously unrecognised trauma,” she said.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said he respected the way Ghahraman had handled the situation.

“I do think it is true that acting out of your normal sort of character can be one real sign of struggling with mental health issues and of stress. But I also am really clear that, those of us who experience mental distress, we should be held accountable.

“I live with bipolar disorder and I would hate for people to hold me to a lower standard of behaviour because I live with a long-term mental health condition.”

He said while people should be held accountable for their actions, there should also be compassion for Ghahraman’s mental distress.

Clinical psychologist Dougal Sutherland is chief executive of Umbrella Wellbeing, a group that provides mental health support and services to businesses and other organisations, and said things such as shoplifting could be a form of stress relief for some people.

Former Green MP Golriz Ghahraman has resigned from Parliament after being accused of shoplifting. Photo / NZME
Former Green MP Golriz Ghahraman has resigned from Parliament after being accused of shoplifting. Photo / NZME

“I think having a psychological understanding of why somebody has done something is really helpful for helping them not do it again. Probably many of us would understand if somebody went home and said, ‘Gosh, I’ve had a stressful day, I really want to do something just to relieve that stress, I’m going to have a glass of wine, I’m going to have two glasses of wine, gosh, I’ve had a couple of bottles now’.

“We probably wouldn’t think too much of that, but the idea there is that it’s relieving the stress. It’s not a healthy way of relieving stress, but it’s a way of relieving stress and it’s possible that a behaviour like shoplifting could have the same effect. It gives you a bit of a dopamine hit, you feel good, you feel like you’ve done something, and it’s a relief from that stress.

“Is it a behaviour that we’d want to encourage or endorse? Not really. Can we understand it from a psychological perspective and therefore help that person? Yes, we can.”

Ghahraman has been one of the politicians to face higher levels of abuse than most in recent years, a concern Green co-leader James Shaw pointed out after she resigned on Tuesday.

He said she had been subject to “pretty much continuous” threats of physical and sexual violence and death during her time in Parliament, which inevitably would have consequences.

Stigma about mental health remains

Sutherland said more needed to be done to protect politicians in that kind of position.

“Whilst it’s a much bigger job and a much more complicated job, I think it’s about how do we change what our politicians are exposed to, rather than saying, ‘well, you just have to get a tougher skin and do some training’.”

“I don’t know what the exact answers are but I think it needs strong leadership from all parties of all political persuasions to say, ‘we’re simply not going to put up with this anymore, it is not acceptable that our people are harmed when they come to work’.”

Robinson warned there was still a lot of stigma in New Zealand about mental health and particularly in leadership roles because people called their judgment into question.

Shaun Robinson of the Mental Health Foundation says prevention is better than a cure when it comes to mental health problems.
Shaun Robinson of the Mental Health Foundation says prevention is better than a cure when it comes to mental health problems.

“Parliament is a real pressure cooker. You know, people working under constant public scrutiny … it goes with the territory,” he said. “I think we need to acknowledge that all of us, including our political leaders, are human beings … expect that there will be times when our leaders are not at their best in terms of their mental health, just as there might be times when they might catch Covid, or they might have a struggle with their physical health.”

He said all workplaces in New Zealand had a responsibility under health and safety laws to look after the mental and emotional health and safety of workers, which meant doing three things: Limiting the things which could damage people’s mental health, creating a culture that normalises mental health-boosting activities, and providing support for people who were struggling.

Doing this would bring its own benefits, too.

“If we do those three things in Parliament, I think we will have a better quality of leadership in the country because we want our MPs … to have strong, positive mental health to be making the best kinds of decisions, to be working in the most cooperative and collaborative way for the best outcomes for Aotearoa New Zealand,” he said.

Sutherland said it was hard to say whether the Green Party could have done more to support Ghahraman because the details were still unclear, but he pointed to previous cases of Kiri Allan and Todd Muller also citing workplace stress.

“I think that perhaps points to the whole system not being sufficient at the moment, rather than one party or another party not being supportive enough.”

He said any change of approach would probably need to be across multiple parties, because one party doing that on its own would probably be regarded as a weakness to be attacked.

There was some good work going on already in Parliament on that, including through a cross-party group which included the new Mental Health Minister Matt Doocey, he said.

Prevention was better than a cure, “but I think they’ve still got a long way to go”, Sutherland said.

“I think in Parliament it’s firstly a very public, high-profile place which is stressful in itself, and also the adversarial nature of the Parliamentary process where you’re actively looking to attack and pull down another person is also a highly stressful environment.

“But if that’s the environment that exists as a workplace, then actually Parliament should be doing something to reduce and mitigate that risk – and I think that would be really great leadership for New Zealand.”

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