Why Aren’t More Politicians Sidelined by Depression?

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Chile's Longueira said no másPhoto: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

Last Wednesday, two weeks after winning his party’s primary, Pablo Longueira, the conservative candidate in Chile's upcoming presidential election, dropped out of the race because he was suffering from clinical depression. The move stunned the public and precipitated a crisis within his party (imagine the American equivalent — Mitt Romney clinches the GOP nomination in Tampa, then pulls out). But given how many people suffer from depression — the World Health Organization puts the figure at about 350 million worldwide — what’s really strange, if you think about it, is that things like this don’t happen more often.

Consider just how psychologically taxing the profession can be. Politicians are barely allowed a private self, much less a suffering one. The metabolic demands of the job are extreme (requiring one to meet hundreds of strangers daily, and to motor through back-to-back events from dawn to dusk). There’s hardly any down time. Unlike most work settings, the people who employ you — i.e., voters — feel zero compunction about hurting your feelings. Almost no profession is more personal, more insultingly ad hominem, more prone to projection and illusion and disillusion, than politics. “Being a public Rorschach can make it hard to keep track of who you are, anyway,” Brian Baird, a psychologist and former six-term congressman from Washington state. “But combine that with sleep deprivation, vitriolic blogs, the bile of former supporters, the temptations of the flesh, the booze, and the complexities of normal human life (marriage, deaths, parenthood, etc.), and it gets pretty complicated — and, oh, by the way, it's not really safe to let any of that show, or talk about it publicly.”

It’s not like we’ve seen no evidence of psychic pain in public life. In August of 1998, the prime minister of Norway announced he was suffering from a “depressive reaction” to stress, and transferred power to his deputy for three weeks in order to recover. In the United States, Lawton Chiles of Florida publicly disclosed his struggles with depression while running for governor of Florida, as did Mark Dayton while running for governor of Minnesota. Most famously, Winston Churchill was forced to entertain unwelcome visits from “the black dog,” which he subdued with drink and cigars throughout his life, and there’s plenty of persuasive evidence suggesting Abraham Lincoln was depressive as well.

Yet whenever we see evidence of genuine psychological distress in politics, it somehow still surprises us. The conventional wisdom in mental health circles is that the stigma of depression remains so powerful that it dissuades sufferers from speaking out. (To this day, the story of Missouri senator Thomas Eagleton looms as a cautionary example — roughly three weeks after George McGovern selected him as his running mate in 1972, he was forced to drop out of the race, when it was revealed he’d had electroshock therapy.) No doubt there’s some truth to this. But the public’s ideas about mental health have evolved quite a bit since the 1970s. I’d venture something else is going on as well: selection bias. Politics rewards charm, optimism, self-importance — feelings that are often quite foreign to depressives. It’s far more likely that people suffering from depression opt out of public life. As Mike Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic candidate for president, recently put it to me in an interview: “If you’re going to be actively involved in politics, you have to have a pretty healthy ego.”

Search the psychology databases and you’ll find practically nothing about depression in politicians. Search for narcissism, on the other hand, and you’ll find plenty. (One of the more amusing studies tracked a large sample of state legislators, university professors, clergy, and librarians in 1998 and found, low and behold, a breakaway cluster of narcissists among the local pols.) This kind of self-regard is endemic in the modern political age — one need look no further than Anthony Weiner for proof — and often even essential to build a career. “Your ability to be vulnerable —  that’s pretty limited,” Baird told me when I followed up over the phone. “Any emotional outbursts…” He trailed off, and then mentioned his old colleague, Bob Etheridge, a Democrat from North Carolina, who one day blew his stack at a pair of hecklers-cum-questioners. “And that was it,” he said. Etheridge lost. “People are laying in wait for you, always. It’s pretty rare to be in a profession where a single mistake can cost you your entire career.”

A few moments later, he called back: “I forgot to mention the perverse abnormality of having to smile all day long.”

“There’s a lot of rejection,” says Doug Duncan, who ran in the Democratic primary in Maryland's 2006 governor race. “You have to learn not to take it personally, and that can be hard to do, because when you’re depressed, everything is personal.” (Just consider the headline in the London Independent when the Norwegian leader took his leave of absence: “Prime Minister too depressed to run country.” The very prospect of such public snark would fill a depressive person with dread.)

Duncan dropped out of the race after doctors diagnosed him with major depression. Better than almost anyone, he can describe what, exactly, happens when a person with the self-lacerating thought patterns of a depressive steps out onto the campaign trail. “Any time someone says something terrible, you think, You don’t know the half of it,” he says. “You’ll be out working a parade route, and you’ll be thinking, This person thinks I’m a fraud, that person thinks I’m evil.”

This cycle, Duncan is gingerly making his way back into politics, running for his old county executive seat. It’s possible he will go on to have a long and successful career in government and serve as an example of how someone who is vulnerable to depression copes with government. Until then, perhaps that the best way to understand the psychic toll is to look not at the politicians, but at their spouses, who serve as a reasonably good proxy for us civilians. They haven’t chosen politics; most of the time, they simply married it, and are therefore forced to live some version of the same lives that politicians do, or at the very least, to contend with the same real-life difficulties under the same extraordinary circumstances. 

And what do they report? That it’s hard. There was Betty Ford, famously, who struggled with alcohol and pill addiction, and described having “no self-esteem, kind of depression, withdrawal.” Tipper Gore suffered from a terrible spell after her son got into a near-fatal accident and the family had to grieve in the public spotlight. (If her husband was suffering, he couldn’t show it.) Kitty Dukakis endured such unrelieved depression she eventually treated it with ECT. In 2007, another first lady of Massachusetts — Diane, Deval Patrick’s wife — was similarly suffering, and checked herself into McLean hospital. “He wins by a twenty-point margin,” Mike Dukakis told me, “and she pleads with him not to take office.”

Perhaps that’s why some of the earliest and most useful public voices to de-stigmatize depression have come from these wives. Tipper, Kitty, Betty  —all of them were at the forefront of raising public awareness about depression. They absorbed the collateral damage of a profession whose brutality their husbands, for whatever reason, could tolerate. Ordinarily, we lament that brutality, and no doubt they did, too, as they were living it. But their activism became the silver lining to emerge from a very ugly process — thereby raising the profile of a group that often finds silver linings very difficult to see.