The stigma surrounding politicians with mental health problems in the UK has its root in how we perceive competence and capability. The idea that someone with an illness that affects their mind sometimes is thus incapable of making the decisions we require of our politicians is deeply ingrained in us. No matter that a recurring physical condition (like asthma, say) can be just as debilitating and distracting – because politics is an activity that mostly uses the brain and not the lungs, someone who admits to having depression is going to be perceived as less suitable.
David Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary, Gang of Four member and trained medical doctor, wrote a book a few years ago titled In Sickness and In Power. He discusses all kinds of ailments and the effect they can have on politicians and our perception of them. With regard to mental health, his argument is of particular interest – he points out that we use words like ‘mad’ and ‘crazy’ to describe politicians' actions, even though no doctor would ever refer to a patient like that. He says:
‘When the press and public use terms such as ‘madness’, ‘lunacy’, ‘psychopath’, ‘megalomania’ or ‘hubris’… they are using words which the medical profession has either long abandoned, redefined or severely restricted. Madness and lunacy for doctors are terms which have been totally replaced by whether a defined mental disorder is present…. Usually heads of government who are popularly dubbed as in some sense mad are not considered to have any mental illness by the medical profession .’
So we use outdated labels of madness to refer to the actions people who are anything but - perhaps it's little wonder that politicians who do have genuine mental health difficulties are reluctant to open up about them. One of the things we’ve sought to show through the variety of contributions to TP’s mental health week is that the idea that politicians need to hide their problems in order to be thought good at their jobs is a false assumption – see our profile of Kjell Magne Bondevik or the list of US politicians who spoke out, for just a few examples. In fact, it can have the opposite effect. Owen cites Abraham Lincoln as an example of someone whose qualities as a leader were most likely in part forged in his struggle to find a way of coping with his depression. And it’s entirely possible, as Sebastian Mann suggested in this piece for us, that Mo Mowlam used her illness to her advantage in negotiations around the Northern Ireland peace process. In fact, as research by Ashley Weinberg and the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health suggests, the costs incurred by politicians’ presenteeism (ie continuing to work while ill) is considerable more than taking time off to recover.
All of this leads us back to the questions of competence and capability. From the examples we’ve seen, being open with the electorate about a mental health condition by no means results in ridicule and landslide defeats. Competence, in every sense, is something that voters must adjudicate, and giving them all the information in order to do so is the right thing to do.