Alex Cole-Hamilton has opened up about the pressure that the abuse he receives as a politician has put on his mental and physical health.

The Scottish Lib Dem leader told The Herald on Sunday that he needed to be seen by a clinician after suffering “physical symptoms” from the “strain of this job.”

He also revealed that the party pays for him to see a counsellor every month. 

In a candid interview ahead of his keynote speech to his party’s conference in Hamilton later today, Mr Cole-Hamilton also said it was a “national disgrace” that the “bin fire of our public discourse” was putting others off of standing for Holyrood. 

His comments came as the Scottish Parliament revealed that they had passed almost 500 social media threats made against just 38 MSPs to Police Scotland.

The parliamentarians were part of a year-long pilot programme set up after the murder of Tory MP Sir David Amess.

On average, each was on the receiving end of 12 abusive posts which were deemed so threatening they were reported to police.

In total, the tool used by Holyrood officials found almost a quarter of a million – 245,420 – online comments which met the search criteria for threatening or abusive language but, following an investigation by a security analyst, just over 8,000 were deemed to be abusive.

Some 7,661 comments were deemed abusive but did not rise above the criminal threshold.

Of those treated as abusive or threatening, the vast majority – 6,621 – were directed towards members of the SNP, while 592 were directed at Scottish Tory MSPs, 501 towards the Greens, 282 for Labour and 114 for the Lib Dems.

READ MORE: Police Scotland passed nearly 500 abusive posts sent to MSPs

Earlier this year, a report by the Jo Cox Foundation warned that the abuse and intimidation of politicians is a "significant threat to democracy."

Research by Holyrood magazine found that 64% of MSPs had received personal abuse that impacted their mental well-being.

For most of those, the abuse took place online. 

Mr Cole-Hamilton, who has been an MSP since 2016, says he no longer looks at the responses to his posts on social media. 

“I tell my mother not to either,” he adds. “I've largely got a fire-and-forget policy on Twitter these days, but it has taken its toll on my mental health. 

“I benefit from a counsellor who gives me help with resilience and coaching. I have had physical symptoms that I've had to get checked out because of this strain of this job.”

“It's really important to say that it's the right thing for me," he adds, "and actually talking to somebody can really help and I would urge anybody struggling with their mental health if they can to access counselling.”

The people who attack him, he says, will not convince him to change his mind.   

“I'm not going to roll over or climb down from these positions because they're saying some upsetting things. 

“I mean, I do get really upset when they target my mum or other family members who are not combatants in this. They didn't ask for me to go into politics.

“But [X] is a bin fire and since Elon Musk took over, it's certainly got worse. 

“There are very little safeguards to protect people now.”

The Lib Dem leader says that social media is still a “valid form of public debate” and that he feels it is necessary to be on the platforms, despite the abuse. 

“I recognise that not everyone agrees with my point of view, but I'm not going to go quietly.”

Is the social media “bin fire” putting people off politics? Has it had an impact on the pool of candidates the Lib Dems can turn to for the looming general election?

“I'd be lying to say that there weren't people who I think would be perfectly suited to public life, who would be an asset to the Scottish Parliament who have turned me down because of the bin fire of our public discourse and just say, ‘I don't want to be subjected to that. I don't want my family to be subjected to that.’ 

“I think that is a crying shame that the lowest common denominator in public debate is actively dissuading some of the highest calibre would-be parliamentarians from entering public office. 

“That is a national outrage.”

He points to his party’s plans to treble the Digital Services Tax on social media giants. The money raised would be used to boost mental health services for young people.

They believe it could unlock up to £150 million for the Scottish budget in Barnett consequentials.

Mr Cole-Hamilton says it will help “mop up some of that collateral damage.”

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This weekend’s conference sees the Liberal Democrats with a bit more influence in Scotland than they had even just a few weeks ago. 

The sudden end of the Bute House Agreement and the downfall of Humza Yousaf has left Scotland with a minority government and a new First Minister reliant on the support of others. 

The Herald:

Earlier this month, much to the annoyance of Labour and the Tories, the four Lib Dem MSPs sat on their hands during the Holyrood vote on Kate Forbes’ appointment as Deputy First Minister. 

Given that the Greens were set to oppose then had Mr Cole Hamilton and his colleagues voted against rather than abstained then perhaps they could have given John Swinney a bloody nose.

The Lib Dem chief disagrees.

”The numbers were never there and also I'd been talking the whole week about grown up politics. So we stuck to our original position on that.”

Despite the rumours, he denies there was a secret deal.

There was some speculation that the decision to abstain was linked to Mr Swinney’s consideration of Willie Rennie’s dogged campaign for more support for households and businesses in Cupar affected by Storm Gerrit. 

“The first votes I offered to the new First Minister, were the votes to dissolve this parliament and call an election. The SNP are onto the third FM in this parliamentary term.

"They have been through the deck. 

"John Swinney was in the room where it happened for every mistake, the SNP made in 17 years, his failures are the government's failures, and vice versa."

“That said, we're not going to get that election. We'll use these two years to good effect. We will act like grownups. We will meet the government on our terms on the issues that matter to our constituents and our liberal values. 

“Obviously, there will be red-line issues we will never anywhere near.”

“It may strike you as odd to hear this, but I want John Swinney to succeed,” he adds.

“If we've got two years left of this term, I want him to do well. 

“Why? Because I love my country. I'm raising a family here, and I want the best for it. And we need stability and good, competent government for that. 

“I'm worried that we're not going to get it.”

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The general election could be tough for Mr Cole-Hamilton and his colleagues. They have four MPs at the moment but tweaks to Scotland's constituencies mean that they start notionally only having two.

"The boundary changes have not been kind to us," he says.  

Nevertheless, the party is, he adds, in "great heart."

"That optimism has been growing in size and momentum since as far back as the 2022 council elections when we outperformed all other opposition parties and put a third on our councillor base in terms of numbers of seats, against all expectations.

"And you know, that has been replicated in huge byelection wins in the south, the blue wall, overtaking the Tories at the local English elections, and winning big in council by-elections in Scotland."

Asked if he is worried about being squeezed in the way that the party was in 2019 and 2021, he says no.

"Let's have a look at the map of Scotland on the day after polling day," he says, "huge swathes of it will be Lib Dem gold, I promise you that. I'm not worried at all.

"And I'll give you a bold prediction, we are going to overhaul the SNP and become the third party of UK democracy again. We're going to beat the SNP. "

He points to recent opinion polls which show the party set to more than double its handful of MSPs at the next Holyrood election.

The most recent survey, carried out by Savanta, suggested they would win 12 - three times as many as the four they currently have.

"We're going to be a force to be reckoned with in the next parliament," he says confidently, "and we're going to be a part of what's next."