Mental Illness in Politics By Matt Wolff on 9/28/12 - 12:26 PM

In a recent debate about mental health services in Britain’s House of Commons, a Member of Parliament paused and laid aside his prepared notes, departing from the abstractions of rhetoric, the lingua franca of all legislative bodies since antiquity, and spoke at length in concrete terms of his own past experience with debilitating depression. The very next speaker, possibly prompted by his colleague’s candor, decided to see and raise the ante on a past history of mental health challenges, revealing that he presently deals daily with the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder and has done so, sometimes more successfully than others, since childhood. In the course of this rather remarkable Thursday afternoon an additional two members chipped in, relating personal stories of dealing with mood disorders.

The use of gambling terms to portray the day’s events may strike the reader as being somewhat flippant, but considering the stakes, also apropos. These four individuals each took a sizable risk in revealing information that could quite possibly effect their future electability in a negative way. Those in the political class rarely reveal weaknesses to the electorate if it can at all be avoided; and, of course, the stigma endemic in a mental health diagnosis, past or present, need not be elaborated upon. Yet, at least initially, the wager has paid off for those involved, as press accounts speak of their courage and statesmanship in dealing with such an issue so honestly. Reportedly, comments emanating from their various constituencies have been overwhelmingly favorable as well. At least one mental health advocacy group has praised the day’s events as a shining moment for the parliamentary government system.

Just now in the United States, public discourse is much noisier but less substantive. We are, of course, in the final months of one of our multi-years long Presidential campaigns and have just completed the nominating convention phase. Party conventions have largely outlived their usefulness in an age when the nominee of each party is almost always known months before they convene. Today they serve primarily as a sort of infomercial designed to sell or re-sell a particular candidate to the populace. Due to the lack of any real suspense and a general disillusionment with government at present, the vast majority of Americans may simply be glad there are so many more viewing options than there used to be when the conventions first began to be televised in 1948. Still, despite the largely ceremonial and theatrical nature of the political conventions, at the end of the process one of the two men celebrated will be the next President of the United States.

It used to be a common practice to accord the nominee’s home state delegation the honor of putting the candidate over the top in the delegate count. Typically, the state in question would abstain from awarding its delegates until the appropriate moment, passing in the roll call so that they can be returned to at the appropriate juncture. This tradition was set aside at both conventions this year. Had it not been, President Obama’s home state of Illinois would have had the honors at the Democratic Convention. Absent from that state’s delegation was a man much in the news of late, Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. Mr. Jackson is now reportedly back at home with family but had been in treatment in a number of facilities, most recently, the Mayo Clinic since June of this year for physical and emotional issues the latter eventually identified by medical personnel as being Bipolar II.

During the time of Rep. Jackson’s inpatient hospitalization, his opponents in the fall election have somewhat predictably attempted to call into question his ability to adequately represent his district due to his supposed mental status. (Jackson’s emotional collapse reportedly occurred following his primary victory and he has remained on the ballot as the Democratic Party’s nominee.) The usefulness of this tactic seems limited, as Jackson is widely expected by observers of the local political scene to retain his seat in Congress in November. The opinions from more relevant quarters—state and local Democratic Party VIPs and prominent elected officials have generally been guardedly supportive of Mr. Jackson during his hospitalization. Similar courtesy was extended to one of Mr. Jackson’s high-profile visitors to the hospital, former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy, when he also acknowledged and sought treatment for mental health issues several years ago. Kennedy continued to serve in Congress following his diagnose until choosing to retire in 2010 to devote his time to a brain health research initiative.

Knowing what we know as trained professionals about the efficacy of modern treatment for Bipolar illness, this optimism and slowness to judgment seems perfectly sensible. It is quite reasonable, after all, to assume that Mr. Jackson, his physicians and family have all collaborated in the best manner possible to ensure his recovery and, considering his continued status as a candidate, his ability to successfully withstand the continued rigors of public service at minimal or no detriment to his wellbeing.

The importance of this relatively new attitude of acceptance in regard to political clay feet cannot be overstated, I believe. A single generation ago the current Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s father, George, a candidate for the same office in the 1968 election effectively crippled his campaign when an offhand remark he had made to a reporter the previous year came to light in which he had explained that his prior but since renounced support for the Vietnam War had come about as a result of a “brainwashing” by Pentagon officials. In the 1972 Presidential campaign, the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, was summarily dropped from the ticket after damaging press scrutiny of his history of hospitalization for depression and treatment with electro-convulsive therapy.

The turning point, when a mental health diagnosis ceased to be politically fatal, may perhaps be traced to Lawton Chiles’ 1990 campaign for governor in Florida. Rather than attempting to conceal his treatment for depression (as Eagleton allegedly had after being invited on to the ticket by nominee George McGovern), Chiles spoke openly about it and extolled the virtues of the then-revolutionary Prozac, which he felt benefitted him greatly. He went on to win his party’s nomination and won the governorship with nearly 57% of the vote in the fall election, going on to serve two terms.
Odds are that there are more than 4 members of 650-member British House of Commons and more than 1 member of the 435-member United States House of Representatives dealing with mental health issues.

Perhaps others in these august legislative bodies will now be comfortable in sharing their trials and success stories, further normalizing the experience of living with a mental illness. Those of us concerned with advocacy can possibly take heart that as the elected class comes to understand that mental illness is not an automatic disqualification for service and that it can strike anyone, and that those able to successfully avail themselves of treatment dealing with it are quite capable of carrying out tasks as important as governing large Western democracies, policy makers may begin to be more receptive to arguments on the importance of adequate funding for mental health and expansion of preventive services. Time and helpful affirmation from the ballot box will tell.


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