Can Depression Make Someone a Better Politician?

Maybe, but the stigma of mental health problems keeps public officials from talking about it.
August 2016
Former U.S. Sen. Thomas Eagleton, left, lost his spot as a vice presidential running mate in 1972 after it became known that he had been treated for depression. (FlickrCC/JeromeG111)
By Mark Funkhouser  |  Publisher
Former mayor of Kansas City, Mo.

Public officials at every level are united in their concern about growing opioid abuse. Calling it “a public health and safety crisis affecting communities across the country,” the National Governors Association released a report in February detailing the priorities of the nation’s governors for addressing that crisis.

What seems to be unrecognized, however, is that opioid abuse is just one of several concurrent crises relating to mental health, none of which can be dealt with successfully in isolation from the others. As many researchers have documented, suicide, loneliness and depression all have increased dramatically over the last several decades.

Another thing that has increased is the social stigma of depression. Abraham Lincoln had at least two suicidal crises in his life, and his chronic depression was widely recognized. He took no pains to hide his moods. He viewed his condition, as Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote in his 2005 book Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, as “part of the natural world, to be studied, understood, and, when possible, managed.” Lincoln’s friends recognized his “melancholy” as simply part of who he was. And I’ve never read that Lincoln’s enemies saw his depression as a weakness to be exploited.

But somewhere along the way that changed. Depression and loneliness have been stigmatized and hidden away, especially by those who aspire to positions of power and leadership. After George McGovern dumped Thomas Eagleton as his vice presidential running mate in 1972 when it became known that Eagleton had been treated for depression, Eagleton’s name became, as Shenk writes, “synonymous with the toxic political effects of mental health treatment.” When Congress was considering President Nixon’s appointment of Gerald Ford to replace Spiro Agnew as vice president in 1973, rumors surfaced that Ford had seen a psychotherapist. Ford denied it, as did the physician in question. “Consulting a psychiatrist or psychotherapist,” The New York Times noted at the time, “is still an unforgivable sin for an American politician.” The irony of all this is that an argument can be made that, as Shenk and others believe was true for Lincoln, being seriously depressed can actually make you a better leader.

These concurrent crises are complex, but there are at least two things a politician can do. First, recognize the need to build opportunities for people to connect with one another and develop a sense of community and cohesion. Second, lead the way in destigmatizing depression. By some estimates, 1 in 6 Americans suffers from serious depression at some point in their lives. The odds are that a few of them are politicians, and it would be good if some of them were as out front about their condition and treatment as Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan was about his cancer. And it would be even better if others in the political world rallied around them the same way they supported Hogan. I think it’s fair to say that Lincoln would agree with that.