Depression and the art of honesty

Is the medical history of gubernatorial candidates relevant?(polls)

Former Sen. Mark Dayton revealed in a Sunday column that he’s suffered from alcoholism and depression. It’s now an issue in his quest to become governor. In politics, there’s often a price to be paid for honesty.

On Sunday afternoon, a Star Tribune reporter asked Dayton for more details of his admission, but Dayton reportedly said such details are “private.

Few afflictions can kill a candidacy faster than mental illness. In many ways, it’s still 1972, when Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton was whisked off the ticket with George McGovern after he acknowledged he suffered from depression and had undergone shock therapy.

John Hottinger, the former president of the Senate, confided after he left office that he suffered from clinical depression. He now speaks occasionally on the topic, “Mental Illness is a Disease Not a Character Defect.”

Lawton Chiles retired from the Senate, and then announced he was suffering from depression. Patrick Kennedy was treated in Rochester for depression.

In 2002, an advocacy group called the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance released a poll that showed that 24 percent of all Americans would not vote for a political candidate with a mood disorder, according to the Washington Post. An equal percentage said they “might not vote” for such a candidate.

The Star Tribune’s following up on Dayton’s acknowledgment, however, now raises another question in the governor’s race. Should all current candidates now be asked if they’re being treated for any illness or have ever been diagnosed for it?

If people believe that it’s none of our business, then Dayton’s mistake — politically speaking — was in being honest.

  • Joanna

    This is such a complicated question. On the one hand, I believe that a person’s decision to reveal medical information is legally protected, and Dayton can choose what, if anything, he wants to tell the media. On the other hand, I can imagine specific jobs for which specific medical conditions mght be an excluding factor: are there illnesses that disqualify someone from holding a pilot’s license, for example? To work for the UPS your have to be able to lift 50 lbs.

    I can only assume that Dayton anticipated that political opponents might attempt to use this information against him, and wanted to present it himself. Unfortunately, most people’s understanding of depression as a chronic illness which can be treated and managed is limited or misinformed. I hope that there can be some media coverage of how millions of people with chronic depression work and live productive lives, as well as of the suffering and difficulties that can be the result of untreated depression. Maybe some coverage of unequal access to appropriate treatment and how the Wellstone bill addressed that would also be helpful. But I’m not holding my breath.

    I do not know under what circumstances a political candidate’s medical information must be disclosed to the public. FDR’s polio, JFK’s back pain, Nixon’s drinking, Reagan’s Alzheimers, Cheney’s heart attacks… I”m sure one could think of many people holding or who have held office who suffered from major chronic illnesses.

  • anotherbob

    People running for public office are or should be under different obligations when it comes to conditions that would otherwise be considered private, if such conditions have a bearing on their ability to perform their duties.

    The trouble is that we are not an enlightened society when it comes to dealing with mental health issues, so it’s understandable that candidates for public office are averse to sharing such info.

    In any case, Dayton’s admissions matter little in regard to the governor’s race, as he was not likely to emerge as the DFL’s standard-bearer.

  • Kassie

    I think the stigma of depression is much less than years ago. I’m in my early 30s and at least half of my friends are on either anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication or have been in the past. Therefore, I think there is a much greater acceptance in younger people for a politician with a mental illness.

    But of course if he would have come out as bi-polar or schizophrenic that would be a different story. I don’t think many people would be forgiving of a politician with these mental illnesses.

    And the battle with alcoholism is a weakness in a lot of peoples’ minds. To me, someone who has been sober, even with relapses, for as long as Dayton has makes them a much stronger character than someone who is an alcoholic. Yet it has been long rumored that some local politicians are untreated alcoholics, yet they keep being put in office.

  • Chris

    I can’t say I’m that surprised by Dayton’s admission. He went through this before in the late ’80s after his first divorce, IIRC. As a Senator, he didn’t seem to enjoy the work very much; was uneasy around many of his colleagues and uncomfortable in the Beltway environment. Living alone and without the personal support structure of an immediate family or close friends in the vicinity, it’s easy to picture him seeking refuge from the high-profile, high-pressure, large-ego nature of the position.

    I remember catching on C-Span a press conference a handful of Democratic Senators were giving on a rural disaster relief appropriations bill in December ’05. When it was Dayton’s turn to talk, I was taken aback at how terrible he looked — pasty, bloated, large dark circles under his eyes — and his high-strung way of speaking, where he expresses his views in one long, run-on sentence until he finally remembers to stop to breathe.

    Should politicians’ medical histories be made public, and if so, to what extent? It’s a little tricky to separate mental conditions from personality traits sometimes. LBJ displayed characteristics of paranoia, violent mood swings, megalomania, and sadism so extreme that you could attribute it to some kind of untreated mental condition, according to people who worked with him. Nixon also showed strong signs of paranoia and violent mood swings, along with alcohol addiction and unnaturally deep anti-social tendencies. JFK was a sex and amphetamine addict who was constantly one cortizone dose away from death. FDR’s body was falling apart while running for a 4th term, overseeing a two-front World War, development of the A-bomb, and negotiations in Yalta, San Francisco, and Bretton Woods, radically altering the political and economic structures of the world.

    I’d argue that all of this health information was relevant, since it affects people’s judgment in high-pressure situations, who they surround themselves with, and how they choose their successors.

    I think the main problem is the stigma attached to some mental conditions. You have a physical organ, the brain, transmitting some chemicals in a problematic way. Treating it with medication is pretty much like treating high blood pressure or some other physical ailment. Driving the condition underground because of fear of public perception is counter-productive.

  • Elizabeth T

    I’m in the midst of writing an essay on epilepsy & its effect on my life. It, like depression, is commonly misunderstood. Given my life (in grad school, married, have 2 children, have a job lined up, 1 seizure in last 8 years, etc. etc) … there’s little comparison to those who struggle for social acceptance. My only contribution to this is to be open and up front about having epilepsy.

    A politician’s medical history is only a matter of public concern if it effects her ability to do her job. This is no different than any other job. The next time I apply for a job & check the box “handicapped”, someone is going to ask what sort of accommodations I need. (and are prohibited from asking what’s actually ‘wrong’) I’ll answer that occasionally – every few years – I’ll need to have a couple days off of work to take care of medical issues & I can’t work alone late at night.

    A politician could have a similar situation: is there something medically relevant to your ability to perform your job? If so, what accommodations will you need? How will this impact your job performance?

    This would provide a level of privacy (don’t need to disclose what the handicap/problem is) … while also providing the public the information to consider in checking the box in the voting booth.

  • John O

    Today’s politicians and public figures are under a microscope 24/7. Any rumor of a peccadillo or condition are tweeted, blogged, and/or recorded on a cell phone and then distributed globally in a matter of seconds. The Court of Public Opinion never adjourns and society seems to take the approach that one is presumed guilty until proven innocent.

    I believe that one of the reasons that many people who might be good candidates for public office take a pass is the 24/7 scrutiny that they–and members of their family–will have to constantly endure. Potential candidates see what happens to current politicians in the Court of Public Opinion on a daily basis and that’s usually enough for them to take a pass.

    Mark Dayton certainly understands how the Court of Public Opinion operates and for him to make this type of disclosure not only shows courage, but it also probably means that he found out that others were ready to use this information against him. He chose to release this information on his terms–not someone else’s.

  • Lisa

    I take issue with use of word “admission.” Is it a crime or transgression to be depressed or suffer mental illness? “Disclose/disclosure” seem more apt in both news accounts and comments.

  • Charlie Quimby

    I don’t think politicians are under any special obligation to reveal medical conditions. If voters actually judged them on their performance, that would be enough to weed out incompetence, whether it was driven by depression, substance abuse, low IQ or a crush on Ayn Rand.

    On the other hand, as someone who suffered from and overcame depression some years ago, I can say being open about it gave me power, made me more empathetic and showed me how many tremendous clients, friends and colleagues I had.

  • c

    ////’m in the midst of writing an essay on epilepsy & its effect on my life. It, like depression, is commonly misunderstood. Given my life (in grad school, married, have 2 children, have a job lined up, 1 seizure in last 8 years, etc. etc) … there’s little comparison to those who struggle for social acceptance

    I am offended by your comment on depression. People with depression do not struggle for social acceptance. People who have depression know that it is merely a chemical imbalance (the brains inability to produce sufficient levels of seritonin). Some people get through it and for some people it is a life long struggle. But the issue here is not a struggle for social acceptance. If that is not how you intended it to read than I suggest you reword your post.

    Other than that I would agree with Charles sans the Ayn Rand comment.