A recent announcement by the administrators at the Brattleboro Retreat that they were going to undertake a campaign to help remove the stigma from mental illness prompted me to try to understand why we have such a stigma. Is it ignorance? Is it fear? Is there some other force at work making people think that those of us who have a mental illness are not worthy of being members of the collective society?
I don't have the answers to those questions, but I think it may be helpful for each of us to give some thought to this topic and to make an effort to de-stigmatize mental illness within our own spheres of influence.
One of the more insidious incidents in the realm of mental illness stigma occurred in 1972 when Thomas Eagleton, a vice presidential candidate with George McGovern, was "outed" because he was treated for depression.
The following account from the Washington Post should become the standard for stigma creation: "Democratic nominee George S. McGovern's presidential hopes virtually evaporated when it was revealed shortly after the party convention that his newly chosen vice presidential running mate, Missouri U.S. Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton, had been hospitalized on three occasions for depression and had undergone electroshock therapy."
It goes on to say that "Eagleton had kept the explosive information from McGovern at the convention, but too many Missouri politicians and others knew about his secret for it to be kept under wraps. An anonymous tip about Eagleton's past to the Detroit Free Press began the chain of events that eventually brought the Democrat's episodes to public view."
The implication is that anyone who has been treated for depression is not capable of holding high-level elected office. I don't remember any public outcry against the stigmatization of Eagleton. In fact, the trashing of a political career was accepted by the American public as something that had to happen.
At the time I had a hard time understanding what the big deal was. Were people worried that if he became president during a crisis that his judgment would be clouded, that he would become angry and irrational and push the button to start a nuclear war? As crazy as that sounds, that may have been the prevailing logic.
Yet, 42 years later, we have made almost no progress when it comes to the stigma of mental illness. If it were to be revealed that Hilary Clinton or any presidential candidate had been treated for depression or had suffered from any mental illness, they would have to end their campaign and walk away from political life forever.
When Dick Cheney was a vice presidential candidate, as well as when he held office, it was public knowledge that he had severe heart disease and that one more cardiac event could kill him or debilitate him to varying degrees. Yet, that did not stigmatize Cheney nor did it disqualify him from being one (questionable) heartbeat away from the presidency. How is heart disease any different from mental illness?
The best thing that could happen to remove the stigma of mental illness would be for a public candidate to out themselves and declare that they were running and that they wanted the world to know that being a productive, smart and wise human being does not exclude the possibility that a person has some degree of mental illness.
Many public figures have offered their own stories about overcoming a mental illness, but I don't remember ever hearing such a declaration from a national political figure. Until that happens, this country will be stuck in the last century when it comes to making progress on this issue.
On an unrelated note, I have to make a correction of a statement I made a few weeks ago. A local doctor pointed out to me that there is no scientific evidence to support the statement that use of Adderall has long-term effects on growing brains. What I believe I meant to say was that no one knows what long-term effects the abuse of Adderall, over time, may have on growing brains.
Richard Davis is a registered nurse and long-time health care advocate. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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