Russ Ford's Blog

Would We Ever Elect a "Crazy"?- The Stigma of Mental Health

I would guess that few of you remember Thomas Eagleton. He is one of those people who did achieve 15 minutes of fame but in his case it was literally not much more.

In 1972 Eagleton was named by American presidential candidate George McGovern as he Vice-presidential running mate. Almost immediately however, it was revealed that Eagleton had been hospitalized for depression.

Across American the debate raged as to whether or not he should be put in a position one heartbeat away from having the world`s most powerful job. Radio talk shows repeatedly asked the question, "should a crazy man have access to the button."

The democratic party decided quickly that the answer to that question was "no`". We could not have someone with a mental health condition in the oval office and Eagleton was quickly dropped from the ticket.

Americans were however asking the wrong question. The question is not whether a person with a mental health condition could lead a country, but rather could a person with mental health condition win an election. It is a subtle but significantly different question.

The question of whether a person who suffers from depression could lead a country had already been answered. The public was just unaware that it had. America`s most beloved president Abraham Lincoln also suffered from depression and his wife Mary, was schizophrenic.

Our great war effort was lead by Winston Churchill another who suffered from depression or the "black dog" he called it and our own Prime Minister King has repeatedly had his mental health status questioned by his biographers.

So three of the greatest political leaders in the western world all had mental health problems. They and those around them who knew, kept silent. They knew the answer to the real question. They knew that despite their performance in office none would likely have been elected or re-elected if the public knew a "crazy was in the house."

That was then but before you suggest this could not happen today, ask yourselves how many current politicians have admitted to a mental health or addiction problem. I cannot think of any because the answer to the question of electability and mental health remains the same. We learned of former American president Richard Nixon's mental health problems and former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's substance abuse issues only after they both left office.

Discriminating or stigmatizing a group of people because they are considered different is certainly not new or unique to this group. We seem as a species to consistently divide ourselves by such characteristics whether those be of race, religion, ethnicity or disability.

Distinguishing ourselves from others is not in itself a bad thing. Our culture has been enriched by groups expressing their diversity. When it becomes a problem is when we start to assert that not only is our group different, but it is clearly better than the other groups. That in my view is the root of discrimination, ascribing certain negative behaviours or inabilities to other groups which we claim not to have.

In the book Guns Germs and Steel the central thesis for western European domination has nothing to do with any notion of individual superiority over members of other races. Europe has dominated the world because Europeans engaged in far more wars than those who lived in Africa or South America. War has many outcomes but a significant one is that war advances a society from a technological perspective. War results in countries investing in trying to create better , more efficient means to kill each other. Europe dominated Africa and the Americas because they had much better weapons.

Yet this military domination based on military might morphed itself into the notion of individual superiority.

History has shown how difficult it is to overcome such notions of superiority-inferiority. We did not all wake up one day and decide that women were worthy of the vote; blacks should have the same rights as whites and refusing to hire people because of their sexual orientation was wrong.

We did not do that, we did not do what is obviously the right thing to do. No, equal rights were not dispensed freely, each of those groups had to organize and fight for their rights.

The ability to organize in my view is why some groups have been more successful than others in fighting for their rights. There has never been an effective voice for the poor because no one wants to publicly be part of that group. There has never been a strong advocacy group for those with mental health issues because again few want to come out and acknowledge they are members of that group. to acknowledge such could also make you the victim of stigmatization.

That has been slowly changing. People are now calling themselves `` survivors`` of our mental health system because you have to be to remain standing after suffering through the practices of the mental health system. And people are starting to come together, refusing on be stigmatized.

On Saturday May 11 members of LAMP`s Among Friends Program are hosting a community walk. The purpose of the walk is twofold. It is to raise money for the program but it is also a means for people to say they will no longer accept being stigmatized anymore.

The walk will start at 9:00 a.m. at LAMP and go to the site of the former Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital and will conclude at the graveyard where those that died while living at the hospital were buried.

You do not have to suffer from a mental health or addiction issue to join the walk. This is also about breaking down barriers between people and that means anyone can join because anyone of us can suffer from mental health problem. We just need to admit it and by doing so we reduce the stigma. By showing others we demonstrate that many of us can actually hold responsible positions in our society.

So today I publicly admit that I too suffer from depression.



Would we ever elect a "Crazy"?

I believe the answer to this question is Yes - and that We Have...we just don't know it. (And that is the point exactly...) We don't know it because mental health disabilities are invisible.

The following paragraph presents some interesting math to consider.

The current statistics are that 25% (1 in 4 people) in Canada will experience mental health challenges at some time over their lives. Now, think about how many elections you have voted in. Not only is it possible but it is quite probable that you have elected a "Crazy" for something! In fact, if you lobbed a nerf ball into The City of Toronto council chambers you have a 1 in 4 chance of bopping a city councillor or maybe even a mayor who lives or has lived with a mental health disability on the head!

Thank you Russ. Thank you for coming "into the light" and publicly joining myself, the members of the Among Friends Program and the brave community members across our city who continue to come forward and self-disclose in a mission to erase the stigma associated with living with a mental disorder.

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