Many students at the U of O take internships or work positions on the Hill. Illustration: Rame Abdulkader.
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Young political workers and the dynamics of mental wellness

It might just be the biggest narrative trope of any government town.

The young and driven from small-town X make their way to the big city, where the sky’s the limit. A group of wannabe political hacks, aspiring public servants, lawyers, and diplomats, they soon learn the ropes of studying, working, networking, debating, socializing, balancing … and repeating.

Alex Verret is a first-year student at the U of O, and he can tell you all about the cycle. His story began in the state of Vermont, where he more or less stumbled into political involvement after meeting the right people. But, he said he’s always had his eye on Canada, so he made the journey to the nation’s capital to study political science in French, discover a new community, and dive into a world of waiting opportunities.

It appears to have worked out. Since the start of the school year, Verret has volunteered as a staffer with two members of Parliament (MPs), joined the University of Ottawa Young Liberals, and even earned important responsibilities with the model United Nations on campus.

Verret is only one of many other students around campus who have immersed themselves in various facets of the political sphere. It all seems made for the movies, but within each of their stories are things worth talking about that don’t usually make the cut.

Mental wellness is one of them.

The Fulcrum spoke to three students with different perspectives on youth political involvement to explore their insights and opinions into mental health. It became a brief but telling exploration of the challenges, supports, and lessons of staying healthy in the halls of power.

At one extreme

Conversations around mental health need not—and should not—be limited to the worst of the worst. There is much to discuss in the everyday balance of life. Nevertheless, it still seems to take a case at the extreme to spur anyone into action.

That’s what happened on Parliament Hill.

In June 2018, a high-level Hill staffer provided an eye-opening account of his battle with mental illness and how the demands of his professional life pushed him to the edge.

Paul Wernick, then-executive assistant to a Liberal MP, had his story covered by publications such as the Hill Times and Global News. He explained that the relentless stress of 60- to 70-hour work weeks, time spent juggling multiple commitments in a high-stakes environment, aggravated the mental health challenges with which he was already grappling. Wernick had long struggled with depression, but on two occasions since beginning work on the Hill, one as recently as May 2018, he attempted to take his own life.

Following his ordeal, Wernick wanted to send a clear message about what was going on. As other media outlets reported, he said what he and other staffers faced was a complex problem for which nobody in particular could be blamed, but that there was an immediate need for solutions.

According to Wernick, the problem was a dangerous combination of too much work, a sense of expendability and insecurity in a non-unionized position, detrimental coping habits such as alcohol use (one which he nonetheless managed to avoid), and a general lack of leadership and awareness.

He called for staffers and MPs to work together to build a healthier atmosphere and a more open dialogue, also recommending the use of educational tools—perhaps similar to those on workplace harassment—on how to support mental wellness on the job.

Wernick’s appeal received overwhelming support from fellow staffers, past and present, and his story remains a stark reminder of just how far things can go.

Work as a political student

The fact of the matter is that most students making their first steps into the political world have lifestyles very different from that of Paul Wernick.

They are not executive assistants at the top of MPs’ offices, and it is likely that the serious issues brought to light by the seasoned Liberal staffer are far less threatening to beginners with fewer responsibilities, pressures, and independence. At least at this point.

So what is the working life of the politically involved student?

In terms of his volunteering on the Hill, Verret talks about doing simple but important work like mail logging and committee reports. As far as the workplace goes, he describes a highly variable and dynamic environment.

“I would say I’ve had two very different workplace cultures,” he said. “The first MP I worked for was a lot more formal—there was more separation between the boss and me. At the current MP office I’m at right now … I feel like I have a lot more contact … I would say I’m more productive.”

Of course, student work in the political sphere extends beyond partisan staffing, as well.

Donya Ashnaei, a second-year student in economics and public policy, spent her first year in Ottawa as a page with the House of Commons. Along with other students, she worked as a non-partisan assistant to the House personnel, getting an inside view on the machinery of Parliament. This year, she saw the flip side of the coin, beginning work for an MP as a paid staffer. This dual experience has allowed her to make important comparisons and contrasts.

“The workplace culture is … more fast-paced in the partisan side than it would be in the non-partisan side as a page,” explained Ashnaei. “Everything you do matters to MPs, staffers, and constituents, especially. So being on top of it, being present, and getting your job done is, I think, more intense on the partisan side.”

Whatever these positions entail, there is steady interest among students to fill them. Spencer Brickles is finishing his fourth year in political science at the U of O and serves as director of an internship program run by the International, Political, and Policy Studies Student Association (IPPSSA).

“We realized that, living in Ottawa, we have such great resources around us for opportunities of all kinds,” he shared. “So we launched our program, which aims to place students within IPPSSA in various offices in the political sphere.” Programs included in IPPSSA include political science, public administration, international studies and modern languages, and general social sciences.

Brickles said the kind of work assigned to students depends very much on the office, be it that of an MP, a senator, or a city councillor. He went on to explain that students can be asked to work anywhere between five and 20 hours per week, with their availability being an important factor.

“Once we place students in an office, a big part of my thing this year is ensuring we have regular follow-ups with both the offices and the interns, ensuring mainly that everything is going smoothly, that no issues have arisen, and just overall that they’re enjoying their experience,” he added.

And for students like Ashnaei, a comfortable work environment seems to be the norm.

“Your boss is there to mentor you and to guide you, and you’re accountable to them,” she said. “I just think in the partisan sector your boss brings you into projects more and you’re more a part of the idea-building.”

The push and the pull

Norms are broken, however.

More importantly, norms become harder to define when the lives of political students become more complex. If students are not facing exactly the same challenges as are higher-ups on the Hill and beyond, they must be facing others.

Brickles’ experience with the internship program has given him some insights.

“Students, often when they’re first placed, they maybe push themselves to the max … in order to put themselves ahead, and to show that they’re a valuable resource,” he explained. “Often I feel they take on more than they can chew.”

Furthermore, he acknowledges patterns of behaviour displayed by politically involved students that, despite their many advantages, can lead to problems.

“They’re people who do extracurriculars on campus, things like Model Parliament, and are more active socially,” he pointed out. “I think stress can be really compounded from taking on all these responsibilities … as well as from making sure you have good grades.”

Ashnaei confirms this culture and even offers a potential explanation.

“I think it’s the competitive nature of politics,” she explained. “A lot of young people are here because … they want to get ahead, and that can kind of lead to competition with each other, which then in turn leads to overworking.”

She is confident that she and other students manage to avoid that obsession. Still, she admits to a certain way of doing things that many students buy into.

“We play this networking game with each other, where all of our interactions have an undertone, a kind of message or objective. And there’s a lifestyle of who works for which MP or which office or which party.”

“We’re friends, but in a competitive way,” she added with a laugh.

For Verret, there are further challenges that he believes everyone in the political sphere can face.

“A big part of politics is trying to present a version of you that is appealing,” he noted. “There’s a lot that goes into thinking about what others think of you, your reputation, and that kind of stuff.”

He contrasts politics with other types of work where merit and stability are valued more highly.

“In politics, it’s all about making sure people like you,” Verret said. “I think you can be the best correspondence or speech writer, but if the person you’re working for doesn’t like you, you’re not going to continue having a job. That’s my opinion.”

Understandings and supports

The people who understand what it means to be (and how to be) mentally healthy as a politically-involved student are probably the students themselves. It all comes down to the decisions they are actually making, and the help they are actually (or actually not) receiving.

Verret describes himself as an advocate for mental health. He shares that he was diagnosed with chronic depression at age 13, and that he has struggled with challenges ranging from bullying to academic stress.

“What it means to be healthy for me is still something I’m trying to figure out,” he explained. “This semester I’m taking six courses, I’m vice-president finance for model UN, volunteering on the Hill a lot more, working on campus, so I have to balance that a lot more, and it’s taking its toll, it’s a lot.”

Ashnaei speaks of personal satisfaction and stability as the core elements of looking after her mental well-being.

“To me, it means being OK with yourself and your situation,” she expressed. “Maybe you’re having a bad day, but at the end of the day, it’s not going to be really harmful to you, or your state of mind, or your state of being, the thoughts that you’re having and the way that you’re feeling.”

In fact, she believes her work in politics has a net-positive effect on her mental health.

“Being occupied is definitely a positive thing for me,” she said. “In the non-partisan role as a page, it was great, because I had somewhere to go and somewhere to be, and the partisan side even more so because I get to work with ideas and policies and thoughts.”

Brickles agrees with the importance of staying happy and believes the workplace is a significant determinant.

“I think that having a good mental state about a job means that you go into work wanting to be there, excited to help out, and any job where you see it as a burden … I think that’s a sign of a toxic work environment,” he said.

He said he believes the IPPSSA internship program is one of the supports that politically involved students can and should reach for.

“We ensure that that the intern is doing well, as much as we can,” he said. “But I think a big part of it is making sure students feel comfortable enough to talk to myself or anyone that runs the program, anyone that’s involved. I think the more comfortable a person is with someone, the more willing they are to talk about it.”

From Ashnaei’s perspective, there are supports in many places, but they can still be made more available.

“Even as a political staffer you are technically a House of Commons employee, and you have all the supports available to you,” she noted. “There are counsellors and people to talk to on the Hill, confidential disclosures.”

“But one thing I noticed was that as pages we got that information, but as a political staffer, had I not previously known about these kinds of things, I would not have found out,” she added.

Never forgetting where he came from, Verret is clear about what—or who—his biggest supports are as he navigates his journey.

“For me, my friends and my family,” he said. “I find it’s my friends, more often than not, that I rely on. I have a couple of really, really good friends that I talk to a lot.”

The importance of companionship is not lost on the others, either.

“It gives you a community of people who are like-minded, who have the same goals,” said Ashnaei. “The same things that impact them in their lives are going to have an impact on you.”

After all, if there is one thing they know for sure, it’s that they are not alone in the spotlight.

Donya Ashnaei sits on the Fulcrum’s Board of Directors.