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Politics and Stigma: Presidents, Governors and Legislators Are Not Immune

by Bob Carolla, NAMI Director of Media Relations

When it comes to American politics, mud-slinging—or the hurling of allegations to see if they’ll stick regardless of whether they’re true or false—is a long-standing tradition. The practice sometimes includes messages exploiting the stigma imposed on mental illness—some of which, unfortunately, do stick. Stigma may be used to attack the competence of a candidate or to undermine a person’s credibility in debating policy issues.

The most famous examples of splattered candidates are Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, who ran for president in 1964, and Senator Thomas Eagleton, who was forced to resign as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee in 1972 after it was revealed that he had been treated for depression.

Goldwater had two “nervous breakdowns” in the 1930s. During the 1964 race, a magazine surveyed 1,189 psychiatrists about the candidates. Most opposed Goldwater as an extremist, couched in psychiatric terms that were so unfair that Goldwater sued the magazine and won. By 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) adopted “the Goldwater rule,” which made it unethical for psychiatrists to offer professional opinions about a person unless they personally had conducted an examination and been authorized to make a public statement. Meanwhile, Eagleton returned to the Senate and served for 15 more years.

In 2003, an online advertisement against an incumbent state senator in New Jersey said his medication was “not working” and “Let’s send him away before they take him away.” It included a photograph of a man in a straitjacket. That same year, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, criticized the State Department as “ineffective and incoherent” in handling foreign policy. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said, “It’s clear that Mr. Gingrich is off his meds and out of therapy.” Gingrich’s mother was known to live with bipolar disorder.

NAMI condemned both mud fights, calling the political tactics “outrageous and unacceptable...Republican or Democrat, Americans have a right to expect a higher level of dialogue and debate by public officials.”

This year, stigma was slung with a twist.

In Minnesota’s gubernatorial primary contests, former Senator Mark Dayton talked about his experience with depression and alcoholism. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune subsequently asked all candidates for governor whether or not they had ever been treated for depression or addiction. Thirteen said no, three declined to answer—one saying that the topic was inappropriate for gubernatorial candidates—and two did not respond.

NAMI Minnesota blasted the newspaper for singling out mental illness and discouraging people from seeking help because of the fear of inquisition. Many elected officials “have governed while living with polio, heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer—to name a few,” wrote NAMI Minnesota Executive Director Sue Abderholden. For candidates, “the inquiry ‘begged for a disavowal of ever coming near a treatment facility.’”

In 1997, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, the principal author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said that Eagleton probably would have remained the vice-presidential nominee at that point in time—25 years later— because public attitudes had changed. However, he believed that every candidate for president should submit their full medical history to public scrutiny to let the people decide.

How far should Dole’s position extend? It’s still being debated. In 2008, President Barack Obama provided a one-page overall health summary to the news media. His opponent, Sen. John McCain, released 1,100 pages.

Self-disclosure does seem to be a key to winning.

In 1991, former U.S. Senator Lawton Chiles was elected governor of Florida after talking about his history of depression.

In 1994, former U.S. Representative Lynn Rivers of Michigan became the first member of Congress to talk about living with mental illness. It had taken her years to learn to manage her bipolar disorder. Her opponent tried to use it to discredit her. Voters didn’t care.

Representative Patrick Kennedy has openly lived with bipolar disorder and addiction. It enabled him to become a champion for mental health care. In 2010, he received NAMI’s Distinguished Service Award.

Whether self-disclosure will work for presidential candidates remains to be seen, but some of our greatest presidents are now known or considered to have struggled with mental illness. The images of two are carved on Mount Rushmore.

Abraham Lincoln’s depression gave him the resilience to see beyond the horror of the Civil War to the vision of a reunified nation and economic and social progress.

President Teddy Roosevelt, today considered to have lived with bipolar disorder, provided an energetic vision for the future as America moved into the 20th Century.

In 2006, a study based on biographical research argued that 18 out of 37 American presidents from 1776-1974 showed signs that they lived with various mental illnesses—primarily depression.

“The study tells us that presidents are more vulnerable and less perfect than we sometimes think,” said one newspaper editor. “It tells us that people with mental illness can be highly functional and highly successful.”

Are Americans ready to elect a president who may have once been treated with electroconvulsive therapy or attempted suicide? Should a politician with a mental illness run for higher office? That’s a decision only the candidate can make.

In 2006, Doug Duncan, a Maryland county executive, unexpectedly dropped out of the race for governor in order to seek treatment for previously undiagnosed depression. He became a hero for his candor, inspiring national discussion about mental illness, disclosures by other public figures and an increase in calls to local mental health agencies as some voters reached out for help themselves.

Times do change. At least with governors, legislators and local leaders, the more self-disclosure and public dialogue about mental illness that occurs, the greater our progress toward breaking the stigma barrier.

So here’s mud in your eye.


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