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Former Prime Minister of Norway Talks about Depression at NAMI Wisconsin Event

Kjell Magne Bondevik, the former prime minister of Norway (1997-2000, 2001-05), related his experience with depression while in office at an event organized by NAMI Wisconsin on Sept. 25, 2009.  Lannia Syren, executive director of NAMI Wisconsin, said that the StigmaBuster event was aimed “to raise awareness among legislators and allow them to see that mental illness can truly affect anyone.”

In his speech, Bondevik reflected on his time in office, his depression and subsequent decision to take a leave of absence. At first, he wanted to resign, but was talked out of it by friends. He detailed what went into formulating the press release explaining his absence as prime minister, and his aim to be completely transparent about his illness.

“I said, ‘Why don’t we just say it as it is?’ I thought it could be useful for two reasons: one, we would avoid speculation about my condition and two, I could contribute to more openness about mental health problems and, in this way, contribute to combat stigma.

“I chose to be open about the diagnosis,” Bondevik said. “I do not regret my openness…I have learned about the importance of openness about mental disease.”

Bondevik understands what others face as barriers to effective treatment: the lack of recognition and understanding that mental illness should be treated like any physical illness, and the lack of clarity about benefits and services. “We must create an environment…where it becomes as easy to talk about mental health as it is to talk about a physical illness or condition…It must be as easy to return to your workplace after a mental breakdown as it is to return after a physical illness.  And we must take more seriously all kinds of harassment… in schools and in the workplace.”

Bondevik experienced relief from his illness by taking stock in his relationships with family and friends, experiencing nature and the arts and exercising to strengthen both body and mind.

“Looking back, it fills me with great optimism and hope that I, as a prime minister, with the amount of responsibility and rational judgment this position demands, was able to be completely open about having a mental illness… could return to my work… and even get re-elected three years later.”

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