11 April 2013

Mental Health and Political Office

Much has already been made of a leaked recording of Senator Mitch McConnell and his aides discussing how they would attack Ashley Judd as a political rival. In the recording, plans are outlined to focus on Judd's history of depression and suicidal ideation. McConnell has cried foul that the recordings could only have been obtained via an illegal wiretap; questions of whether McConnell's staff worked on this potential campaign issue on the clock has raised ethics questions of their own. For the moment, I'm not terribly interested in either of those concerns. (I will say, I believe McConnell is Machiavellian enough to have set up the "wiretap recording" himself.)

As with so many things political, the issue is rarely the politician who says or does something outrageous, but rather the people they represent who support that outrageous thing. In this case, I can't even bring myself to revise my level of contempt for McConnell to include his planned disparagement of someone with depression because I know that the real enemy here is our cultural ignorance about mental health. Voters are people, and people at large don't understand mental health issues at all. It's surprisingly easy to ruin a political career by asking voters whether they trust a candidate to be "stable" if they know he or she has any kind of mental health disorder.

During that brief phase in which Ashley Judd was considering challenging McConnell for his Senate seat, I wrote an open letter to her with some questions and unsolicited advice. I never addressed the ways in which her publicly documented battles with depression might be a political liability, though I should have anticipated that.

I myself have flirted with political aspirations over the years, knowing the whole while that my mental health would be a liability to me. I would even be a liability to a partner or spouse seeking office, though I think the culture on that is changing enough that it could be portrayed as a "sympathetic positive" for a woman candidate who "cares for" a male partner with mental health issues. (Voters do like to obsess over how domestic a female officeholder is.) You may recall, Dear Reader, that I campaigned in a mock-election in high school. An attempt was made then to detract from my viability by associating me with Marshall Applewhite, leader of the Heaven's Gate cult. It was ineffective because my schoolmates knew my sense of humor, but this was before I ever sought help for my depression. At that time, all anyone knew about me was that I was moody.

I share my experiences in this blog for the same reason that Ashley Judd has shared hers in the press and in her memoir, All That Is Bitter and Sweet: to help break through our cultural ignorance; to humanize mental health patients and to educate the general public. I believe that mental health patients and their advocates speaking out is the only way that we can ever change our cultural stigmas. I'm just a nobody, but when someone of her stature speaks it does get people talking and thinking. She knew that and she believed in it, which is why she came forward about her issues. As a candidate, I would have encouraged her to have stayed that course.

Politically, the best play open to her would have been to have said, "Yes, I had these problems and the whole world knows about them. Voters can find out all about them in my past interviews or my book, where I discuss them in depth. How comfortable they are with this is for them to decide, but I believe that voters want to be represented by someone they know will be compassionate and understanding. Mental health is a very serious issue and one that has been poorly addressed to date - in large part due to the stymying efforts of Senator McConnell, who has repeatedly opposed expanding programs to help mental health patients."

If McConnell wants to paint a mental health patient candidate as potentially erratic and self-destructive, who might what? Refuse to vote on reasonable bills just to make a point of some kind? Prosecute a political agenda that willfully throws the entire country in harm's way? Refuse to listen to or care about a whole swath of constituents because, you know, screw 'em? If so, then it's not Ashley Judd or a mental health patient that McConnell should oppose. It's himself, for doing all those things on a daily basis. Ashley Judd endured an abusive childhood and needed help processing that. What's Mitch McConnell's excuse for obsessively opposing President Obama on a daily basis at the expense of the entire country? Egocentricity? Psychopathy? Self-destructive stupidity? Voters deserve answers, Senator.

I don't know that Ashley Judd will ever see this blog post, but in case she does, I want to say this: I understand. I understand why it angers you to know that this could have been an issue to hurt your chances of offering the people of Kentucky a better representation in the United States Senate than they've had with Senator McConnell. I understand why it frustrates you that people are still so ignorant in 2013 about these things that he even thought it would be an effective strategy. I understand why it hurts to feel like this shows just how alone people like us really are in a world that doesn't understand us.

I'm just a nobody, like I said, but you're not. When you speak, the whole world listens. You don't have to hold a political office to help change the world, and I would strongly encourage you to remember that. Look at Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who have done more for the world out of office through their respective foundations than they could in the White House. You're free of any obligations to lobbyists or donors. You can continue to help educate the public about mental health, and to tear down the wall of ignorance that presently makes having a mental health issue like depression a political liability.

To anyone out there with a mental health issue who has thought about political office, I would say to you what I've thought myself over the years: Don't give up hope that the voters may actually be understanding. Depression and anxiety are distracting. We can't pretend otherwise. But we also aren't enslaved by them. We can act on behalf of others. In fact, in my personal experience I found that being helpful to others was the best treatment for my depression. If anything, I'd be a better officeholder because of depression, though I understand why the average voter wouldn't understand or believe that.

Our discussions about mental health are changing across this country, in large part because more Americans are coming forward and saying to their families and their doctors that they need help with something. It's becoming increasingly commonplace for people to at least know someone close to them who suffers from a mental health disorder. We're still "The Other", as evidenced by McConnell's confidence that attacking Judd's mental health would work, but it is changing for the better.