Would you vote for a politician who was open about having a severe mental illness?
It’s an odd time in politics. The president derides opponents as crazy, psycho, or nut jobs, and his opponents seek to have him declared mentally unfit for office. It’s a shame, because it diminishes the efforts and struggles of the few politicians willing to come to terms with, and be open about, their own, real mental illnesses.
Mental illness does not play well in the political arena. In 1972, after only 18 days on the ticket, George McGovern’s vice-presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton had to resign from the campaign after it was revealed that he had electro-convulsive therapy to treat a past bout of depression.
Patrick Kennedy, a popular congressman from Rhode Island, had very public struggles with addiction and bipolar disorder. After crashing a car into a barricade near the Capitol in the middle of the night while abusing prescription drugs he managed to be re-elected. But he had to resign because of difficulties dealing with the stress of his father Ted Kennedy’s death. He has since become sober and a tireless advocate for mental health causes.
Rep Karen McCarthy of Missouri fell down drunk in a House office before she sought treatment for alcoholism and undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and Rep Jesse Jackson, Jr of Illinois resigned amidst a finance scandal fueled in part by episodes of undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
Others who served or are serving openly, and less dramatically, with a mental illness are Reps Seth Moulton of Massachusetts (PTSD), Ruben Gallego of Arizona (PTSD) and Lynn Rivers of Michigan (bipolar disorder), as well as Senator Tina Smith of Minnesota (depression). Smith’s revelation is recent, so we’ll see if it impacts her chance of re-election this year.
These individuals are brave, for surely more officials in Washington then just them do or have worked to manage a mental illness.
The experience of congresspeople in Washington got me thinking about the advisability of people with severe mental illness serving in such high-level positions.
This will surely upset, offend and confuse a lot of people, but I, a person who has successfully managed bipolar disorder for over a decade, am ambivalent about this.
Drawing on my own experience, I’m not sure if people with a condition that impairs judgment as much as bipolar 1 does should hold such responsibility. Wait a minute! I protest to myself. I have had management positions since my first of six hospitalizations, I encourage my wife in her life and career and, most important of all, I am the primary caregiver of a young daughter. How can I take that position?
Well, I get grandiose and make poor, very poor, decisions at times. When episodic I’m quite impulsive. Before I was struck by bipolar disorder, I was an executive for a financial services firm. I couldn’t, and shouldn’t, do that now.
This may seem lacking in confidence and defeatist. I think it’s realistic. I couldn’t deal with the stress and my inconsistencies would be unworkable.
Maybe it’s different for other people with severe mental illness in fields of tremendous pressure and responsibility like federal-level politics. I’m open-minded, but when faced with the question would I vote for a politician with a history of severe mental illness I must pause. For a very long time.
So would I? For president, never. Probably not for senator or governor, either. For others I would carefully consider the individual and their experience and may be persuaded.
It hurts to think this. It’s emotionally painful to write this. Maybe my own experience with mental illness should not be extended to others who face similar challenges. They just might be better at it, and more capable.
I honestly believe a person with severe bipolar disorder can do almost anything. Almost. We can certainly serve, but we must realize our limitations. People count on us. Hell, people count on me. I can do what I choose to do.
But that’s just it. I know what to choose. I know that running for high office is not within my realm of possibilities. Unless, of course, I’m manic and hugely grandiose. The fact that that happens disqualifies me.
I’m afraid it disqualifies others, too.