A More Upbeat Mood About Depression: Stigma and Mental Health Take Center Stage

Expert Patients John McManamy and Deborah Gray share their insights on breaking news about depression

Mental health issues entered the spotlight this week, as two prominent community figures' private battles with depression became public knowledge. In Montgomery County, Executive Doug Duncan announced that he was dropping out of the governor's race to cope with clinical depression. The Washington Post optimistically titled the article announcing his withdrawal 'In Politics, a More Upbeat Mood About Depression.' The same week witnessed the tragic death of publisher and public servant Phil Merrill, who committed suicide after allegedly suffering a period of severe depression. The Washington Post reports, 'Top Brass Recall Merrill's Frankness, 'Can-Do' Spirit.'

So what does this really mean for us? Here's what our expert patients John McManamy and Deborah Gray have to say.

John McManamy reflects . . .

Our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln, unfortunately would not even be able to run for dogcatcher today on account of his depression. Not with all the media scrutiny these days. Lincoln's melancholy (as they called depression back then) was well known to the voters, yet living successfully with his affliction was seen as a character virtue and a political asset rather than a weakness and a political liability. In some ways, their age was more enlightened than ours.

A recent Duke University study of our first 37 presidents found that one in four lived with a mood disorder. This includes John Adams (bipolar), James Madison (depression), John Quincy Adams (depression), Franklin Pierce (depression), Abraham Lincoln (depression), Rutherford B Hayes (depression), Theodore Roosevelt (bipolar), Woodrow Wilson (depression), Calvin Coolidge (depression), Herbert Hoover (depression), Dwight Eisenhower (depression), Lyndon Johnson (bipolar).

Both depression and bipolar can confer obvious advantages in the right people. With depression the rose-colored glasses come off and one can think realistically and not get talked into making bad decisions. Bipolar works well in the productivity, visionary, and charisma departments. Bill Clinton, I contend, was a 'unipolar hypomanic,' not a full-blown bipolar but able to use the benefits of hypomania to his full advantage (but also, unfortunately, exercising extremely bad personal judgment).

But again, the 37 Presidents in the study all lived in an era when the media stayed out of their personal lives. It's a far different situation today. Sure, there may be less stigma than there was 10 or 20 years ago, but it's much stronger than in Lincoln's day. The way we treat the mentally ill is a national disgrace, there are too few legal protections and too much room for abuse, we devote a pittance to mental health research compared to other illnesses, and way too many of us are locked away in jails out of sight and out of mind.

No, we have a long way to go.

Deborah Gray shares her thoughts . . .

We are waging a war against mental illness, one that we seem to be losing. I'm not usually so pessimistic about this fight, but recent events are not encouraging.

Last week, the suicide of a successful publisher, Philip Merrill, was confirmed. On Friday, a candidate for the Maryland governorship, Doug Duncan, announced that he was dropping out of the race because of clinical depression.

Why are these things still happening? Merrill had all the advantages on his side for fighting depression - money, education and access to healthcare. If that wasn't enough to help him get successful treatment, what hope do less fortunate depression sufferers have?

As for Duncan, despite the chipper headline in the Washington Post - "In Politics, a More Upbeat Mood About Depression," - well, if the mood is so upbeat, why is Duncan dropping out? Americans don't seem to have any problem with Vice President Cheney, who is one heartbeat away from the presidency, not having a very regular heartbeat, but most of them don't want a governor or president who has depression.

Stigma against mental illness is still alive and well, and somehow, suicide is still the only way out that some people can see. We've made advances in this war in the past few decades, but they're not enough to hold the line.

-Deborah Gray