TDB’s mental health blogger, Hadley Grace Robinson-Lewis, sat down with Jami-Lee Ross to discuss mental health, harassment allegations and the politics behind his fight with National
Hadley: Why did you go to mental health services? And could you tell me the story of what happened recently in the public eye?
Jami-Lee: “It’s more than just saying I tried to hurt myself. There was a whole range of stuff leading up to it. The bottom line is I got into a place where the pressure of everything building up was just too much”
Jami-Lee: “I was feeling really isolated from friends, family and colleagues. I felt fairly worthless and I felt quite a bit of shame. It was off the back of a challenging week politically but also off the back of a decision that was taken by the National Party to utilise personal indiscretions against me because I was, in the words of one of the women who apologised to me, (someone who) “the National Party wanted to combat and put back in a box”. Those were words that were told to me by one of the people that appeared with anonymous quotes in a news article against me.
Jami chose not to name the anonymous women.
Jami-Lee: “She is a staff member and I know who they all are”.
Jami-Lee: “I’ve made a lot of mistakes particularly in my personal life and I don’t agree in which the way Newsroom put the story together and the slant they put on everything but the bottom line is particularly with a number of staff members that have worked for me previously, I didn’t create an environment that they enjoyed working in, I didn’t know that at the time. I feel really awful about the fact that I created an environment they didn’t enjoy working in and I’m really sorry for that. I’m really sorry to my wife and kids for making big life mistakes, that have had an impact on them. I wish I could go back, do it all again and not hurt them in the way that they have been hurt publicly”
Jami Lee: “Just before Christmas and after Christmas one of the people who works for Simon Bridges who I had an inappropriate relationship with, she contacted me because she wanted to hear how I was doing, she also wanted to check that I was okay because obviously there had been a lot in the media about my wellbeing and the fact that I had ended up in mental health services and so she asked to meet with me. I explained to her that I wasn’t in a particularly good space and I hadn’t been having a good time. She ended up apologising to me in the way in which it all happened. She apologised at both meetings that we had and she’s apologised in writing to me as well. To cut two long meetings down to a very short summarised form, effectively she’d gone to the National Party last year saying I don’t think Jami-Lee is in a particularly great space, he’s saying some things that sound like he’s struggling, maybe he’s struggling with some mental health issues, I’m worried about him.
Jami-Lee: “They asked her if I had run Simon Bridges down, she said he has but he’s also said positive things about Simon too. They asked her if she would hand over personal text messages between me and her that they could have a look at. She being an employee, didn’t feel that she had the ability or the right to say no and she felt like she had to. She told me she felt that she had to hand over the text messages. They discovered there had been an inappropriate relationship that had taken place”.
Jami-Lee: “In October when Simon Bridges and I had a very public falling out, where he had accused me of something that I didn’t do and didn’t have an opportunity to answer before he put it out in the media and then I went public with my view that he had acted inappropriately when it came to electoral donations. Around the time of the falling out, one of the women was asked by Paula Bennet if she would speak to the media and she didn’t feel that she had much of a choice again. She was asked about the National Party leadership if she would speak about her personal life to the media in an attempt by the National Party to combat me.”
Hadley: “So the woman did not go out on her own” In regards to her personal relationship with you?
Jami-Lee: “She told me that when I was speaking out against Simon Bridges, it was obviously chaotic in the National Party at the time. In Parliament she said, is there anything I can do to help? And they asked her if she would speak publicly in the media to combat me. Paula Bennet asked a number of people and arranged the interview for a number of people to speak publicly against me. Paula has claimed that she has no involvement in it, and that the women spoke out by themselves but I’ve been told by the person who apologised to me that she was asked if she would do that. She had previously been asked to hand over her personal text messages which she felt she didn’t have the ability to say no to as well.
Jami-Lee: “Earlier in the year I had started to notice that I was struggling with some issues, as we also know I had an inappropriate relationship with Sarah Dowie a National MP that was getting a bit challenging. I was getting emotional about things that I shouldn’t have or normally wouldn’t have. I wasn’t feeling particularly great, I never asked for help though. I was doing the whole kinda brave person look, I didn’t seek help. When things got particularly difficult with Sarah Dowie, who was also my friend, when she sent me that particularly nasty message which incited me to harm myself. It caused me serious emotional distress at the time.
Jami-Lee: I needed help, I contacted a counsellor the very next day after she sent the text in the middle of the night. He referred me to a psychiatrist, who I now see regularly.
Jami-Lee: “Simon and I were pretty good friends for years, I helped him on his leadership campaign. Throughout the year I had been questioning some of the leadership decisions he had been making. I questioned whether we were doing enough because his personal poll rating was dropping. Simon isn’t someone who likes having someone question him too much so he viewed it as disloyalty, I viewed it as me trying to be helpful by saying hey, Simons personal popularity is dropping here, we need to do something because in election year we are going to want him to go head to head with Jacinda Ardern and say I’m capable and I’m worthy of being Prime Minister. If Simon is becoming more and more unlikeable as people get to know him then that is not a winning formula. Questioning the strategy and direction, led to Simon becoming more and more unhappy with me. In late September 2018, he wanted to demote me for disloyalty. They also threw in there behaviour that Paula subsequently described as, ‘unbecoming of a married member of Parliament’. Parliament is very good at keeping quiet, many personal relationships which would probably not pass the Paula Bennett conduct of being a married member of parliament test. It’s never been used against an MP, certainly not in recent times but they used that as the reason to try and push me backwards because Sarah Dowie had also gone to the leadership to say that I was not in a particularly good space. I don’t know for sure but it’s highly likely she also disclosed an inappropriate personal relationship between her and I”.
Jami-Lee: “My accusations and complaints to the police about Simon falsifying his electoral return and also my concerns around the $100,000 donation which, Simon knew about that led to the National Party leadership to combat me. The Newsroom website did an anonymous story with anonymous quotes from people. I know who they all are and I know every single story, I have a very different view about them but it was too late by them, they successfully launched with Paulas instigation against me, to try and combat me. The “combat me” quote is from the person who apologised to me.
Hadley: “Will the anonymous person who made anonymous statements about you ever come out to the media?”
Jami-Lee: “I don’t know, it’s her choice. When she apologised and indicated she was concerned for my well being, she asked if she could do anything to help me. I said well, you guys successfully created an image of me which, you know is untrue. You’ve asked to meet with me, you’re sitting her willingly at your request meeting me. You’ve made it sound like in the media though that I’m this terrible person that you have to stay away from. I said if there is anything you could do, you could correct the perception that you helped to create. That’s her choice though if she ever wants to do that.”
Jami-Lee: “By the Saturday, the pressure was very heavy on me, I was struggling anyway. The police had searched for me two times prior because family members had alerted them to concerns for my wellbeing and by the Saturday it was all too much, I was feeling worthless. These two searches took place in that hellish week in mid-October. While the media circus was happening around me, behind the scenes Police had need to search for me twice. I was also visited by emergency health services in the middle of the night while I was in Wellington.” I asked my wife if I could see the children because they are great little happy kids, who I love immensely. She did not think I was in the best space to see the kids, she was doing what any mother would which is caring for the children, she did not think it was good for them to see their father in the emotional state that I was. I felt well, I don’t have anything left here and I considered doing something dumb”. Then on that Saturday a phone call was made to emergency services. They sent an ambulance and a police car to my house, I wasn’t at my house, they started searching for me and my wife assisted with the find my iPhone app. They deployed a police helicopter, dogs, ground support and they stopped the trains. Fortunately they found me and I’m really thankful for them for finding me. I went to Waikato Hospital first, not straight to Middlemoore. I was also help compulsorily. I wasn’t there on a voluntary basis. I don’t blame mental health struggles for any hurt that I’ve caused people, but it is context that’s important when looking back at that week”.
Hadley: “How are you feeling now?”
Jami-Lee: “I now know that it’s okay to ask for help. The people working there were great. They supported me hugely. I later found that in my facebook messages account there were hundreds of messages from people supporting me which I’ve now started slowly getting around to replying to. I thought the whole country was against me and I didn’t think there was much worth living for.
Hadley: “Did you feel misunderstood?”
Jami-Lee: “I felt that the National party deployed everything they possibly could to stop me and they turned dirty and nasty. They were doing all they knew how to with the skill set that they had. We talk about mental health awareness every week and every year when it comes to mental health week in parliament. When it comes to supporting others, they had a choice to help someone who wasn’t in a good state of mind at the time or viewing me as an enemy. They did what was best for the political party. I guess that’s Paula’s job to defend Simon Bridges and to do what she has to do for the political party. I don’t blame them for doing what politicians always do. The hatred and bitterness that I felt last year, I’ve pretty much moved on from that. I just want to focus on doing the best in my job but people ask what happened, they want to know the context. I don’t blame mental health struggles for any hurt that I’ve caused people.
Hadley: “Did you ever receive support and help from your colleagues?”
Jami-Lee: “I should have taken my mental health more seriously. I should have made sure that I was reaching out for help and taken responsibility myself more. When someone asks if you’re okay, sometimes it’s worthwhile being honest with people about how you’re feeling instead of bottling it up. I don’t blame anyone in Parliament. There are still friends who asked how I was and still ask how I am and I’m thankful that they care enough to ask. I should have taken it more seriously myself. I never expected that it would be deployed against me by political party leadership in an effort to combat me when they didn’t like what I was saying. I should have realised that Simon doesn’t like criticism and I could have avoided falling out with him. I could have just shut my mouth and not participated in the way that I did. I value self responsibility and I didn’t enough at the time, I need to now. People with mental health issues need to take responsibility for themselves but we should also help people be more aware and support people more. I don’t blame anyone for how I was because there was a whole range of factors that played a part including the fairly nasty text message from an individual which I once cared about. The police are now following up on a complaint from a third party (regarding the text message). I take responsibility for not seeking help.
Hadley: “How could leadership in the National Party improve?”
Jami-Lee: “I’m not going to criticise the leadership. It’s a high stress and high level environment but I think we can be kinder. I was recently talking to a friend of mine who is a relatively senior police officer, she said I wish someone pulled you aside and said shut-up (Jami said with a laugh), what she was saying was why didn’t everyone just sit back, calm down and talk about it quietly. We all would have ended up in a really different position. I was a part of the national family, I was a colleague, I should have asked and accepted support more and earlier.
Hadley: “What are your views on Jacinda?”
Jami-Lee: “She’s a thoroughly likeable person. I think she’s doing her best, I like her as an individual. I spent a couple of years doing morning TV with Jacinda and I think she’s a real genuine person. The people want someone they can look at, believe in and has their best interests at heart. Anyone who appears to be there for themselves or the pursuit of power, they fail the blink test of the public they wont go very far. She is a very capable individual who I think earlier on didn’t get taken seriously enough but she’s a formidable politician and someone that connects well with New-Zealanders. I don’t agree with all the policies that the Labour Party/ NZ First and Greens”. In regards to spending and taxes. “My political philosophy is more in line with the National Party. I was there for a long period of time, most of my adult life”. Jami-Lee said that he believes John Key is a great leader as he connected with the people and the people believed in him”.
Hadley: “What would you say to people in mental distress?”
Jami-Lee: “Ask for help. In politics you train yourself to present an image to be as perfect as you can be, where your capable of anything and everything and you mask over your flaws. I was trained to do that for a long period of time. Had I asked for help with my struggles, I probably wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in now, and what happened last year probably wouldn’t have taken place”. Jami said that he wished he asked for help and he now takes full responsibility for his actions. “Be honest with your friends, family and loved ones about how you are feeling”.
Hadley: “What were the mental health professionals at the DHB like”?
Jami-Lee: “They were great, lovely and I had people in my room at all times. I was never out of their sight. They are just great human beings. I’m very thankful to them”. Jami-Lee couldn’t praise the DHB staff enough and thinks they saved his life. “I’m better now at identifying my mental health and telling those around me when I’m not feeling great. I owe it to other people too to show others that you can be in a high profile role, fall down and get back up again. My message would be when you’re feeling better tell people that there is light at the end of the tunnel. When you’re in that position you only see doom and gloom. I was at a point where all I was thinking of was myself, I now know that there are far more important things. No political point scoring is worth hurting other people around you. I wish I realised that at the time, now I do. Coming out the other side after being so low gives you a different perspective”. Jami-Lee believes he has learned a lot.
Jami-Lee: “I hope I’m judged on those 15 years of work for the Botany community. Not that one week or month where everything fell apart. My desire is to prove to people that I am capable of doing my job. I can be a constructive member of parliament for Botany. I’m there for good purposes”. Jami-Lee wants to focus on things that are important “my wife, my kids, my personal health and serving my constituents”
Hadley: “What are your views on the anonymous sources and the Newsroom story”?
Jami-Lee: “Anonymously sourced quotes lacked context about who they are and which politicians they work for. That didn’t allow the public to make up their mind around a range of things and motivations”.
“One of the anonymous individuals has since apologised and one is under police investigation, for a message that is potentially a criminal offence. I’ve done lot’s of thing wrong but context for the public is important and transparency is important”.
Hadley: “Do you feel compassion for Sarah Dowie”?
Jami-Lee: “Yea, I do. She would have been going through a difficult and emotional time herself. For a backbench MP, for the leadership to be asking you to speak to the media, that’s a lot of pressure that very few people could not buckle under. I wish she hadn’t spoken to the newsroom anonymously in the way she did, with descriptions that I have a very different point of view on. She would have been put under immense pressure herself. She will now be going through a lot of turmoil. What nobody ever considered in all of this is the collateral damage. I didn’t consider it, Sarah didn’t consider it, Paula didn’t consider it. The collateral damage done to innocent family members and children, when Paula was convincing Sarah to talk to the media she was not thinking of the families. Sarah was assured of anonymity but given the text message that she sent and the potentially unlawful nature of that there is always a risk that the collateral damage I’ve experienced, she is now experiencing as well. I feel immense sorrow for Sarah, that she is in a positron that she didn’t expect to be. Had she not been put in that position then she would not be suffering. Sarah and I made mistakes, we hurt our families and friends. When people make personal mistakes like that it’s rare for it to be played out in a public way where innocent parties for hurt”. I feel sorrow for Sarah that she was misled by people who claimed to protect her. I know what it’s like, I feel sorry for her, I hope she has the right support and if she needs help I would always be happy to talk to her”.
ABOUT HADLEY GRACE ROBINSON-LEWIS: Hadley is based in Ōtepoti. Her iwi is Ngāi Tahu. She is an RN, social activist and vice chair for NZNO/TR nursing union in the southern region. Hadley is passionate about psychotherapy, philosophy, charity, social activism and Māori health. Her greatest achievement was raising $25,000 for a women’s refuge in Auckland with Habitat for Humanity. Hadley is currently studying a postgraduate diploma in health sciences endorsed in bioethics at Otago University and is the co-owner of The Fighters: a suicide prevention movement.