Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mental illness has benefits!

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, who runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts USA, has published a book that links strong leadership ability, especially in times of crisis, with mental illness. Equally remarkable is the hypothesis of A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness that mental illness provides us with better tools for coping with extreme crisis.

Dr. Ghaemi's book counters the usual attitude that while some world leaders have been identified with mental disorders, those illnesses are details to be ignored or handicaps to be overcome. But the idea that mental illness can be an asset in a leader isn't new. One of Darryl Cunningham's graphic short stories, in Psychiatric Tales, brings up the same idea. Cunningham writes that Winston Churchill's bipolar disorder symptoms helped his leadership during World War II. In England's grimmest moments, Prime Minister Churchill's extreme energy, grandiosity, belligerence and lack of inhibition helped pull his people through. His remembered quotations include "If you're going through hell, keep going," and "I like a man who grins when he fights."

Dr. Ghaemi says that not only can manic symptoms serve a leader well, but so can depressive symptoms. He writes about Martin Luther King, Jr and Mohandas Ghandi surviving suicidal episodes years before they emerged as grassroots leaders. The idea is that a major depression takes a huge toll on your psyche and requires all of your emotional and creative resources, but the effort it takes to pull yourself through builds a special skill set. Coming out on the other side of wishing you were dead creates a strong sense of self and a learned ability to respond to crisis with positive, productive action. We depressives who have been up and down, emerge from each dark battle with an even better ability to thrive in adverse circumstances.

Surprisingly, A First-Rate Madness includes a discussion of John F. Kennedy, who I'd never associated with mental illness. From Kennedy's hypersexuality, extreme energy and family history, Dr. Ghaemi concludes that Kennedy had a disorder that causes mild manic symptoms all the time. This enabled Kennedy to endure serious health challenges while building a political career towards the presidency.

It gets a bit edgy at the end of the NPR article, when Dr. Ghaemi speculates about President Obama's ability to weather one of the most economically horrific periods in world history. Dr. Ghaemi categorizes the president as being mentally healthy and stable, but hopes the president's early life, which was characterized by both personal and racial identity crises, might have affected his moods and anxiety levels, creating a more "nuanced" personality than average. The doctor recognizes the strangeness of hoping your president has mental illness in his makeup, but believes that if President Obama did, it would be to his advantage.

Any book that points to the advantages of mental illness and how it makes one more resilient under pressure, is a book I must investigate. I've heard the assertions about people with mental illness being more creative, but our society doesn't value creativity nearly as much as it values strong leadership skills. I'd like to be associated with that, too. I urge you to read this article, or even better, listen to the radio story (even better, read the book and let me know what you think). My husband says, "There's good and bad in everything," and I'm happy that it looks like that applies to mental illness, too.


Mary Louise said...

Great synopsis and insight. You also write beautifully. I'd send the "article" to my father, he actually went to the Fletcher School at Tufts, which might give the author more credibility but I think he hasn't read what I've already sent him on my illness . I'll check out the book and give you some feedback.


cantorman said...

I've known this from personal experience. I would say that the illness and the lessons learned from it are birds of a feather. I am a believer in reincarnation, and this fits nicely into a cosmological model wherein we're here to learn something useful. Mental illness is a great teacher, if the lesson doesn't kill you before you learn something. If it does, you have to start over. Apprently it was a theme in my family, we all decided to talk the advanced course together.

David A. Parker said...

As you may remember, Regina, our friend Robert Cowie has long had a piece of paper on (or near) his piano stating "people with mental illnesses enrich our lives," listing luminaries such as Beethoven and Van Gogh - maybe he can send a JPEG of that for posting here.

Regina said...

My friend Scott points out that Chamberlain, Churchill's predecessor, was mentally healthy and stable, but on his watch, Hitler rose to power.

Regina said...

To face what we're facing these days, President Obama better turn out to be nuts.

Anonymous said...

here's hoping not just for the USA but all of us that Obama is nuts!!!!

Btw LOVED Churchill!