As mental health takes precedence on the public agenda, the leaders fronting these conversations will often place their mental health on the backburner as they support others.

Leadership is shifting to favour courage, kindness and vulnerability. There’s a focus on caring for our mental health. However, both these social shifts rarely intertwine, and will often leave leaders isolated and feeling as though they can’t talk about their own mental wellbeing.

In June 2019, The World Economic Forum published an article exploring why leaders should care about their mental health, suggesting that there remains a strong stigma around leadership and mental wellbeing to overcome. According to the article:

“This moment calls for a new type of leadership: one in which leaders show strength through embracing vulnerability, and exercise wisdom through creating spaces in which their teams can be psychologically safe, innovative and open about their mental health – if they so choose.”

Now we must ask our leaders and encourage them to ask themselves, are you okay?

Many leaders from all sectors have borne the brunt of the summer bushfire crisis, taking on communities’ hurt and feel as though responsibility lies on them to help heal.

From Prime Minister Scott Morrison, emergency service personnel to the local leader or the person who unintentionally found themselves leading evacuations and supportive communities – leadership takes many forms as does caring for mental health.

Furthermore, the leaders of an official position face enormous public pressure and scrutiny. While such pressure may be part of the job description, it is critical that leaders feel as though they can talk about their mental health when facing a crisis of this magnitude.

Macquarie University Associate Professor and Psychology Lecturer Mel Taylor says the issue of a leader’s mental health is exacerbated by the prevalence of often harsh and critical social media commentary during times of crisis.

“Social media is a double-edged sword,” Dr Taylor says.

“Usually when things are unfolding, there is a lot of support for communities/fire agencies/leaders etc.

But there is also an undercurrent of criticism and judgement which can be quite destructive- especially when it focuses on individuals and/or upsets people who are already dealing with their emotional distress.”

The Australian Government has recently announced a mental health package to provide immediate, short and medium-term mental health support for individuals, families and communities impacted by the bushfire crisis.

Dr Taylor who is also a researcher at the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Center, says awareness about your mental health is key. Leaders need to take the necessary steps to pause, evaluate and assess their mental state to be able to lead others effectively.

“I think it’s really important to remember that these people are also part of these communities- so they are hurting in the same ways.

“Dealing with their losses and emotions- guilt at surviving serious loss if that’s the case, seeing and feeling the communities’ reactions, possibly being blamed directly, or by association with more distant/less local leadership and their decisions,” she says.

Sydney Anxiety Clinic Founder and Principal Clinical Psychologist Jodie Lowinger says empathy and vulnerability play a crucial role in effective leadership.

“Leaders serve as role models for resilience and can help in leading by example through the strategies that they are engaging in for their mental health and wellbeing,” Dr Lowinger says.

“This is promoting and normalising the essential role of emotional recovery for the community.”