Ms. Whittome, whose father is of Punjabi heritage, has been an outspoken advocate for many causes, from social justice to women’s rights, a role that has sometimes drawn criticism from those on the other end of the political spectrum. After activism during widespread protests against a controversial policing bill earlier this year and the Black Lives Matter protests last year, she detailed a torrent of abuse.
In an interview with the news outlet The Independent last year, she spoke of the hate mail and racist abuse on social media that had become the norm, and of having to report a series of death threats to the police.
The abuse she detailed, particularly on social media, has become typical for many women in Parliament. Female lawmakers, and in particular women of color in Parliament, have long faced abuse, both online and in person, at a disproportionately higher rate than their male counterparts, reports have shown. Before the last general election in 2019, in which Ms. Whittome won her seat, some women chose not to stand in the election, citing the abuse.
Her office is still open and staff are still working while she takes leave.
And while the details behind Ms. Whittome’s trauma were not given, her frank discussion of her mental health struggle also highlights a broader issue, mental health experts said.
David Crepaz-Keay, the head of applied learning at Britain’s Mental Health Foundation, a charity that has been carrying out a nationwide study of the pandemic’s impact on mental health since early last year, said it was also indicative of a shift in public discourse.
“We’ve noticed a huge change in the kind of broader public willingness to engage in talking about mental health, even over the last five years,” he said, pointing to society’s long history associating shame and disgrace with mental illness.
But more recently, public acknowledgment of mental illness — including by other members of the British Parliament and lawmakers elsewhere like Kjell Magne Bondevik, who took a leave of absence as prime minister of Norway in 1998 and spoke openly about his depression — has helped to normalize the struggle.