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Boris Johnson’s “toxic” mental health comments show just how out of touch he is

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Kayleigh Dray
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Boris Johnson’s “toxic” mental health comments show just how out of touch he is

Bryony Gordon, Poorna Bell and Matt Haig are among those who have criticised Boris Johnson’s “upsetting” comments on mental health.     

Mental health is an issue that affects so many of us; indeed, figures from the NHS have shown that one in five women in the UK has reported a mental illness in recent years.

Despite these overwhelming numbers, however, sufferers often feel incredibly alone, and find it difficult to open up to friends and family. With so many misconceptions about mental health, it can be hard to explain to others what’s really going on inside your head – and put the complex range of emotions into words that your loved ones will understand.

Thankfully, though, things are changing. Over the past few years, we have seen many celebrities – including Fearne Cotton, Emma Stone, Ryan Reynolds and Ariana Grande – make it their business to speak up about their own mental health conditions. And, in the process, they have busted some toxic myths around depression, anxiety, panic attacks and PTSD.

Which is probably why it felt so jarring when Boris Johnson – who has long been the clear favourite in the Tory leadership contest – penned a column for The Telegraph in which he put forward the idea that the UK can “improve mental health, save money and boost the economy all in one go”. 

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In the article, Johnson – who has long been a fan of Winston Churchill, citing the late politician’s mantras on numerous occasions – used the former prime minister as an example of someone who used hard work as a coping mechanism for depression.

“It was with work that he pitchforked off his depression; and what was true for Churchill is basically true for all of us: that to a very large extent we derive our self-esteem from what we do,” he writes.

“It is often from our jobs – from being engrossed in our daily tasks – that we get that all-important sense of satisfaction.”

Johnson did not, as many have since pointed out, point out that Churchill’s alleged dependence on alcohol could have something to do with his ability to “[chase] the Black Dog away”. Instead, the PM hopeful drew a sweeping conclusion: that hard work is a form of “therapy that lifts the spirits of hundreds of millions if not billions of people around the world”. That hard work is the “cure” for depression.

It should come as little surprise to learn that Johnson’s comments have since triggered a wave of outrage online.

“Boris Johnson’s column in The Telegraph that the cure to mental health problems is work, is honestly the most arrogant, incorrect, upsetting piece of trash I have read in a long time,” tweeted Poorna Bell.

“As someone who lost a loved one to depression, I cannot say this clearly enough: fuck you.”

Bryony Gordon, who works at The Telegraph, added: “To balance Boris’s piece, I should say that I’ve needed lots of time off work to deal with my mental health, and my bosses have always been incredibly supportive about it – even suggesting it on occasion. My bosses at the Telegraph, just so you know.

“The only reason suicide rates are going down, as Boris states in his piece, is because we are finally doing away with the stiff upper lip school of thought that Churchill needed to display when there was a world war on.

“Stiff upper lips were the order of the day when the biggest killer of young men in this country was the Nazis. But now it’s suicide, a different attitude is needed.”

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Gordon added: “Distracting yourself from the stuff in your head doesn’t work. It didn’t work then - we will never be able to know for sure as suicide was illegal until 1961, meaning statistics from the time are misleading, and it certainly doesn’t work now.

“Good self-esteem comes from knowing you can safely take time off from your job to recover from an illness without fear of losing that job… should @BorisJohnson become PM I’d be really happy to meet with him and discuss some proper mental health solutions. You know where to find me, Boris!”

Matt Haig added: “Read an article by Boris Johnson on how to improve mental health and my mental health deteriorated.”

“Having spent the last few frightening weeks accessing acute mental health crisis team for someone I love so much and finding the system stripped back and chronically underfunded, I can tell you Boris Johnson needs to shut the fuck up,” tweeted Nicky Clark.

Another Twitter user, sharing a poster from mental health charity Mind UK into their feed, added: “Work-related stress anxiety or depression accounts for over half of all working days lost due to ill health in the UK.

“It would help Boris Johnson if you did your research with @MindCharity instead of spouting uneducated claims on mental health in the @Telegraph.”

Some called Johnson “pig ignorant” and a “bigot”, insisting his views on mental health are “dangerously misguided”. Others pointed out that his “work sets you free” motif is one which was used frequently in Nazi Germany.

However, there were those who noted that The Telegraph’s paywall had prevented many from reading the article in its entirety – and suggested that Johnson’s quotes were being shared out of context.

“There’s a really interesting idea in it,” said one, before outlining it for non-subscribers. “Tax breaks for companies that look after their employees mental health: providing financial incentive to put in place, as yet undefined, measures to support [mental health] at work.”

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Whatever you make of Johnson’s claims, it is worth noting that mental health experts have said time and time again that it’s proactive to look after your mental health by taking time off work when you need to.

As Madeleine McGivern, Head of Workplace Wellbeing Programmes at Mind, previously told Stylist: “Things like long working hours, excessive workload, and poor relationships with colleagues can all lead to unmanageable stress, which in turn can worsen or cause a mental health problem.

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick. Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain. It’s up to each individual employee to decide when their mental and/or physical health prevents them from being able to carry out their job and warrants asking their employer to take time off sick. Most employees experiencing a mental health problem can manage their symptoms and excel in their roles, provided they are given the right support.”

“Sick days can and should be used for a mental health problem, just as for a physical health problem, if it’s severe enough that someone needs time off. Creating a distinct category such as ‘mental health sick days’ could undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day to day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.

“What we do know is that employers who make mental health an organisational priority generally see improved staff morale and productivity, with employees who are more engaged and less likely to need to take time off sick.

“Offering workplace wellbeing initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), flexible working hours, and ensuring good and supportive line management of all staff, can all make a massive difference when it comes to spotting any signs that people might be experiencing a period of poor mental health, nipping problems in the bud, and preventing long spells of sickness absence.”

To find out more about taking time off work for mental health, you can read our article here. For support, advice and information on depression and other mental health issues, particularly on how to be mentally healthy at work, visit the Mind website now.

Image: Getty

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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