The ghost of moral madness

Only the morally weak and degenerate became mentally ill in the 18th century. At least, that’s what the popular theories of the time suggested. Madness was caused by moral failings and those who lost their mind were sinners.

We like to think that we live in enlightened times and that only in the far outskirts of the religious fringe are mental disorder and immorality thought to be (presumably gay) bedfellows.

Politics is one of the few areas were accusations of mental illness are considered fair game. I don’t mean simply calling someone or their ideas ‘mad’, ‘loony’ or ‘crazy’. I mean suggesting a politician or a political group has a diagnosable mental disorder.

US psychiatrist Lyle Rossiter published a book in 2006 claiming that liberalism was a form of clinical mental illness. Bang up to date with the latest in 1920s Freudian analysis, Rossiter claims that liberalism is caused by problems with relationships as a child, leading to a pathological fear of abandonment and an obsessive need for an omnipotent control of others.

Presidents fair little better. A 2004 book claimed George W Bush is an untreated alcoholic, while a 2000 book claimed Clinton was racked with compulsions.

In the UK, so many people accused Tony Blair of being insane that an article was published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine that gathered the accusations and wondered why otherwise respectable clinicians feel the need to diagnose public figures.

It seems this is one of our last bastions of publicly acceptable prejudice against mental illness. We would be horrified if politicians were labelled epileptic because of their views, but barely blink an eyelid when they’re called schizophrenic.

This makes it all the more ironic that numerous successful politicians have been genuinely mentally ill. Winston Churchill was famously pursued by his ‘black dog’ throughout his time as Prime Minister and a recent biographical study by Duke University found evidence for psychiatric problems in 37 US Presidents from 1776 to 1974.

One of the most remarkable stories from recent years comes from Scandanavia, where Kjell Magne Bondevik, the then serving Prime Minister of Norway, announced he needed three weeks sick leave owing to an episode of depression.

Bondevik returned to work and was re-elected in the subsequent election. He’s now retired from politics, campaigns to fight the stigma associated with mental illness and was recently interviewed (realvideo) about his experiences on BBC’s Newsnight programme.

It’s a optimistic story for many reasons, but the fact that the Norwegian electorate seemed more concerned with his past record than his diagnosis gives us genuine hope that we’re slowly banishing the ghost of moral madness.

Link to JRSM article ‘The Madness of Politics’.
realvideo of Kjell Magne Bondevik interview.

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