The outgoing leader of a council says she resigned after people close to her told her she should take some time out after they witnessed a deterioration in her mental health.

Councillor Sara Bedford spoke openly about her personal situation at a full council meeting last night as she announced she was stepping down as leader of Three Rivers District Council with immediate effect.

Cllr Bedford told members that she has been suffering panic and anxiety attacks and that abuse she says she has suffered online has had a "dreadful toll" on her mental health.

She said in the meeting: "Last year I received a lot of online abuse, threats and hate. I was compared to Hitler, Rose West and Kim Jong-un. I had vile messages sent on (Facebook) Messenger and by email, some telling me to ‘watch my step’. I had previously had a death threat (which I dismissed), but I then received two threats to rape. The police are aware of all of this."

The Abbots Langley and Bedmond councillor revealed that she has been on medication, had counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy after being diagnosed with panic and anxiety.

Cllr Bedford said she has suffered two panic attacks in the council offices - one last year and one earlier this year.

And she said the pandemic has made things worse, because psychological support from the NHS has been reduced.

Watford Observer:

Three Rivers District Council offices in Rickmansworth

She said: "The pandemic has led to extraordinarily long and stressful working hours for all council leaders. I have also been trying to support officers, who are also stressed.

"I could not do the things that help me relax, such as going to the gym, swimming or meeting people in person. And I have suffered repeated abuse and threats, such as calling me a traitor and an enemy of the people. That is really chilling.

"This has had a dreadful toll on my mental health. I am suffering repeated panic and anxiety attacks, which leave me frozen and unable to do anything and very emotional.

"When I start to suffer an attack whilst in a meeting, particularly when chairing, it is very difficult and tiring to get through it without pain and stress and without people noticing. I just want to get away as quickly as possible.

"I have been gently advised by my medical support and by senior officers that I should take some time out and after much soul searching I am going to do exactly that.

"I am not doing anyone any good, least of all myself. I am not giving the best that I can to this council, its officers and residents and my colleagues. I cannot trust myself to stay calm."

Watford Observer:

Cllr Bedford was granted a leave of absence of six months but says she will still try and carry out her duties as a ward councillor where she can.

She defiantly told members they "cannot get rid of her that easily" and said she will "come back stronger".

The departing leader, who took on the role four years ago, added she is going to become an unofficial ambassador for mental health

She said: "I’m sorry not to have shared this with most of you before, but I hope that’s you can understand that it is very difficult to talk about.

"Not embarrassing or shameful, but not knowing where to start and how to explain. I’m not mad, bad or dangerous to anyone. I’m just not well."

The new leader of Three Rivers District Council is Sarah Nelmes and the deputy is Stephen Giles-Medhurst, who gave a speech paying tribute to her.

Later, he wrote: "It was a very moving statement to hear from Sara. Very personal and incredibly well put.

"Some of this I had only become aware of this in the last week site. Personal attacks in any form are totally unacceptable and I do so told council in applauding the significant contribution Sara has made to Three Rivers.

"I and others will continue to support Sara as she overcomes this."

Watford Observer:

Conservative leader Alex Hayward also gave a tribute.

In her speech, Cllr Bedford thanked a number of people including her colleagues Cllr Nelmes, Cllr Giles-Medhurst, Cllr Matthew Bedford, Cllr Alison Scarth, Cllr Phil Williams, Cllr Margaret Hofman, Cllr Dominic Sokalski, and Cllr Kate Turner.

She also thanked council officers and two police officers who went "above and beyond" when she received abuse.