Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The bright side of mental illness!

Guess what, everybody? There's an upside to having bipolar disorder and depression! Dr. Nassir Ghaemi runs the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts USA. His book, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, argues that typical people without depression have an optimism bias: they expect to do well, things to go well, people to behave well, etc. People who suffer from depression don’t have this. We tend to see things 50-50: there's an equal chance things could be good or bad. This tendency handicaps us when it comes to average daily living because we’re out of step with everyone else’s view, but it’s good when things go wrong. Suddenly we appear realistic, prescient and practical, plus we've often done some preparation for the crisis. Once again, there's good and bad in everything, even mental illness. Blessed be the symptomatic!

The project of Ghaemi's book is to show that people with bipolar disorder and chronic depression have qualities that make such people superior performers in times of hardship. Chapters compare depressive William T. Sherman's unconventional battle strategies to homoclite Robert E. Lee's Civil War traditional approach, and bipolar Winston Churchill's foresight and grandiosity to homoclite Neville Chamberlin's ill-fated taciturnity (Ghaemi's term "homoclite" refers to people who have no symptoms of mental illness whatsoever). Ghaemi makes the argument that people with depressive and bipolar tendencies do better in crisis than people without mental illness, but likewise, homoclites perform better when things are good. Thus Chamberlain was an ideal leader for peacetime, but didn't do so well in foreseeing the rise of Hitler.

What I find encouraging about this book is its argument that depression and mania aren't bad all the time. Ghaemi defines "creativity" as finding novel problems and solving them. Mania, which includes rapid thinking, flights of ideas and making grandiose plans, creates ideal conditions for high creativity. Creative people conceptualize complex ideas, making connections others would miss, and so does a person in mania. Ghaemi isn't the first one to point out that Churchill's mood disorder got England successfully through a war that a more clear-minded individual might have seen as a lost cause.

Ghaemi names four key elements of mania and depression that serve leaders well in crisis: realism, resilience, empathy and creativity. All of these are found in depression and two -- creativity and resilience -- are found in mania. Ghaemi identifies Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi as depressives and Ted Turner as having bipolar disorder. He finds evidence for John F. Kennedy having been hyperthymic, which means slightly manic all the time. He also provides counterexamples of five homoclite leaders who unsuccessfully managed their countries' crises: Richard Nixon, George McClellan, Neville Chamberlain, George Bush and Tony Blair. Ghaemi isn't just seeing depression and mania everywhere. He also points out where it was actually needed!

Published in 2011, Ghaemi's book wonders if Barack Obama might have some mania or depression to help him get us through the crap heap he inherited in 2008. (From President Obama's performance thus far, I'd guess he does.)

So there's the good news. We are gradually uncovering the good parts of being mentally ill and they do exist. As a depressive, I'm grateful to learn that some of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century were aided -- not hampered -- by the same emotional disorder I have. Those of us with bipolar disorder and depression just happen to flourish when everything's going down the crapper, but hell, someone has to be able to take the helm at such times. Go, Obama! Please be a wacko.

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