Andrew Falloon may be in distress, but that's no excuse for bad behaviour

8:08 pm on 22 July 2020

By Taimi Allan*

Opinion - Mental distress is not an excuse for sexual harassment - let's establish that right away. There is nothing in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) that refers to sending unsolicited sexual images as a symptom of any known mental illness.

National MP Andrew Falloon has resigned after it emerged he sent explicit images to at least three women.

Disgraced National MP Andrew Falloon. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

We have heard little detail around Falloon's mental health concerns, and that's okay, our mental health challenges are nobody else's business.

We know he experienced a recent loss of a friend, raising unresolved grief from similar losses earlier in life, and we know that grief and suicide touch most of us, and can leave an enormous psychological toll.

What we also know however, is that sending unsolicited graphic images to someone is not a known coping mechanism and will not make you 'feel better'.

Yesterday we heard that when Falloon sent these images, he had been drinking heavily.

At least one woman has accused him of gaslighting - manipulative behaviour that makes the receiver of such communication feel like or believe they are going crazy. It's concerning that someone who is capable of deliberately making someone else question their sanity has also used mental health problems as an excuse for their inappropriate behaviour towards a teenager.

Who knows if these claims are simply a desperate measure to control a narrative, to shift blame and avoid personal responsibility. I can't say if Falloon is genuinely in mental distress or not. I haven't spoken with him and don't know the full details, but I have no doubt that the unwanted attention by the public, his own party and the media he is now getting, will almost certainly be contributing to him feeling some sort of distress.

Good leadership means taking personal responsibility, for ourselves and the wellbeing of our colleagues. We expect certain qualities and behaviours of all people with trusted positions in society, and strong leadership requires a commitment to leading by example.

When a member of Parliament deferred personal accountability to the umbrella term of 'mental health issues', it took away from all the work we in the mental health community have been doing to remove the prejudice that surrounds mental health issues.

When people use mental distress as an excuse, it casually undermines the 47 percent of Kiwis who will go through distress at some time in their life and then find it difficult to get a job, rent a home or get life insurance.

Fear of the unknown is a powerful motivator for discrimination, and self-stigma or shame/whakamā is how those dealing with mental distress internalise this prejudice. We can see ourselves as 'less than' or 'undeserving of' and that's an attitude our organisation actively seeks to change.

The discrimination many Kiwis experience because of mental health issues is only fortified when these excuses are used by public figures, when other personal issues are at play.

With regards to Falloon, there are two issues here - one of inappropriate behaviour, and one of acknowledging grief, trauma and addiction.

It's important that we separate the issues and not link them together.

It is a fine balance to address both without getting on the 'flame someone' bandwagon - if he is unwell, there is a risk that too much negative media attention may actually intensify any real mental health concerns Falloon may have. Our leaders need to be encouraged to seek help when they need it.

This needs to be prioritised as a core cultural value in all political parties. Clear expectations should be set - if you are struggling, you are required to seek help immediately, and party leaders should provide immediate access to resources that allow for that.

This is a timely reminder to all our political parties, to go back and have a close look at their mental health policy, and make a commitment to getting it right for all of us.

In the coming election, I would like to see a commitment from all parties to mental wellbeing and for appropriate support systems to be made available to all New Zealanders.

Mental distress is not a weakness, in fact quite the opposite. Learning from it can make us more compassionate, resilient humans.

Hiding behind mental "illness" however, is. Using distress as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour is unacceptable.

We expect more, and these young women deserved more.

*Taimi Allan is the CEO of Changing Minds, a national mental health charity operated entirely by those with personal experience of recovery from mental health and/or addiction issues. The non-profit organisation is running [ wellbeing sessions] as part of the national psychosocial response to Covid-19.

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