A former communities secretary described how working in the Cabinet exacerbated his agoraphobia as he sounded the alarm on the “huge toll” faced by front line politicians.
Speaking about his experience of managing an anxiety disorder in a highly pressurised role, Simon Clarke said the “sheer physical and mental strain” on those with senior jobs at the heart of government was “an underestimated part of the Westminster story”.
Mr Clarke, 38, who recently returned to the backbenches after his spell in Liz Truss’s top team, said his condition “waxes and wanes” but may correlate with how run down he feels.
The disorder, which tends to manifest itself as a fear of being unable to escape or seek help, prevented him from taking part in the Budget briefcase photocall in Autumn 2021 when he was chief secretary to the Treasury.
Mr Clarke said at the time he was skipping the outdoor shoot because his agoraphobia stopped him feeling comfortable in some open spaces.
The Tory MP for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, who sees a therapist to help him cope with the condition, stressed it is possible to “turn a corner”, saying he now feels “a lot better” than he did at the time of the photocall.
Speaking to GB News, Mr Clarke said he was “fortunate” that his anxiety does not affect his ability to do his job but added that certain settings, such as the concourse of King’s Cross station or big airports such as Heathrow, are “very difficult” for him.
He said people predisposed to anxiety were not helped by the long hours and “heavy” decisions of political life and warned that a “nasty” atmosphere has engulfed politics in recent years, with “extraordinary” levels of hatred funnelled through social media.
“I think you can mentally get worn down,” he said, adding that it was important to open up about his struggles because mental health problems are nothing to be ashamed of.
“I’ve lived with it on and offsince my early 20s,” said Mr Clarke. “It’s one of those things that waxes and wanes and it correlates, I suspect, to pressure. Also, perhaps it is linked to how run down you are, and if there’s one thing about government jobs, they take a huge toll on the people who hold them.
“I think that’s probably an underestimated part of the Westminster story – the strain, the sheer physical and mental strain, that people holding these jobs are under."
Agoraphobia is defined by the NHS as a fear of situations where escape might be difficult, or an inability to reach help if things go wrong.
It is more complex than a fear of open spaces, the health service says, with those suffering from the condition potentially scared of using public transport, visiting a shopping centre or even leaving their own home.