Thursday, 10 September 2009

Stop hounding the Prime Mentalist!

So. Rumour has it [well, Guido has it] that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is taking a course of mood-stabilising anti-depressants. Several major blogs and broadsheet columnists of all stripes have gone public with the allegation that Gordon Brown is taking “heavy duty antidepressants known as MAOIs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors)”. This rumour, along with what Guido reminds us are "the stories of rages, flying Nokias, smashed laser printers, tables kicked over and crying Downing Street secretaries subjected to foul-mouthed tirades", have led many in the national press to suggest or imply that Brown's leadership is inherently undermined by his alleged mental health difficulties, as well as by the medication he supposedly takes for those difficulties.

We have no way of substantiating this rumor, but let's for a moment run with the assumption that Brown is taking anti-depressants. My response? Good. Great. If the Prime Minister of Britain is suffering from depression or some other mental health condition, which given the stresses of his current position seems highly likely, then I'm glad he's getting treatment for it. I'm glad he's man enough to admit that he might need help. Anti-depressants are used by millions of people in this country, although the stigma attached means that many of us don't talk about it, and in almost all cases barring those of people detained against their will in institutions, the process is both voluntary and helpful. It takes courage to go to the doctor and say that you have a problem, even if you're not a leading political figure who's constantly in the public eye. I only wish more politicians would follow his example - after all, it's not as if mental health difficulties in government are unheard of.

Some of the greatest leaders the Western world has ever seen had serious mental health difficulties. Winston Churchill was plagued by crippling depression, which he referred to as 'black dog' and treated with that much less effective anti-depressant, booze. Lincoln was also chronically depressed and anxious. The Time To Change campaign has hilighted these examples, along with other famous figures who had mental health difficulties, such as Florence Nightingale and Charles Darwin. Last year, a Mind investigation found that large numbers of politicians and staff were forced to hide mental health problems, with 19% of MPs, 17% of Peers and 45% of staff reporting personal experience of mental health difficulties. And in 2001, the Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik outed himself as a person with depression, and was subsequently elected for a second term.

So is the 'Prime Mentalist', as he has become known, a person who has mental health problems? It certainly seems likely . Would that fact, by definition, make him unfit to lead the country? Absolutely not. Not only have plenty of great statesmen and women had mental health problems, the experience of overcoming those problems and playing to one's strengths may even be an advantage in politics - as it is for many people who, like myself, battle mental ill health.

You need to be a bit mental to play the politics game, and if you aren't to begin with, you might be before long - 86% of MPs say that their jobs are stressful, and at a recent Depression Alliance event Laura Moffat MP bravely told guests that her own experience of depression was a direct result of her valuable and ongoing work in poltics. A symptom such as paranoia, believing everyone hates you and is talking about you behind your back, may well be a perfectly rational response to, say, being Gordon Brown. I'd wager that few politicians are entirely sane, especially not the successful ones - just take a glance at Tony Blair or David Cameron if you want to see what an obviously broken personality looks like. On the other hand, just for example, it's perfectly possible that Enoch Powell and his dimwitted BNP descendants are entirely sound of mind - stupid, prejudiced and evil, but sane.

One's mental health does not affect one's morals or one's ability to lead. To say that Gordon Brown is a mentalist may well be accurate, but it's also entirely beside the point. Gordon Brown is not a weak leader because of his mental health. If he is a weak leader, it is because he lacks the courage of his convictions, because he no longer has a convincing political narrative, because he is out of steam and out of ideas.

So let's challenge Brown for being a worn-out, uninspiring leader who we're all a bit sick of. Let's bring charges of cronyism, aggression, lack of charisma and lack of ideals. But don't let's for a moment suggest that his mental health - good or bad, medicated or unmedicated - has anything to do with it.


  1. *applauds*

    Oh, thank you so much. That so needed saying.

  2. Here Here!

    Politics in this country rarely veers very far away from the personal, but recently it has seemed even more viciously nasty than usual.

  3. Guido Fawkes, a man so deranged he needed to hide himself from the public eye before being outed... paranoid delusion or self-worth egotistical mania? Who cares. Still no doubt the Daily Fail will have something absolutely depressingly awful to say about it all.

  4. I had no idea Gordon Brown and Derren Brown shared more than a surname!

    I think perhaps Gordon Brown isn't actually a mentalist unless the last few years have been some elaborate illusion. Then I can use my escapology skills to get away from it all.
    Otherwise, I totally agree, nobody should be criticised and penalised for seeking support for their mental health. it's the responsible thing to do. Especially in Brown (Gordon)'s position.

  5. Speaking as someone who actually knows about this stuff unlike the media -

    If he does have these dietary restrictions he probably is on MAOis. Especially the Chianti wine one, that's a dead giveaway. "Cheese", not so much. I note that there is no actual evidence that he is, so it's all just rumours at the moment.

    MAOis are not "heavy duty" antidepressants, they are probably no more effective than newer ones. The only reason they are used less often today is that they are more hassle (dietary restrictions, and the side effects suck).

    They are still used in some cases if other drugs don't work; they seem to be remarkably effective in some patients but useless in others.

    If Brown is indeed taking MAOis this doesn't mean his depression is any more severe than if he were taking other drugs. It would indicate, rather, that he was either unable to take other drugs for some reason (unlikely), or had tried other drugs and they hadn't worked.

  6. I agree with the broad thrust of what you are saying - GB should be applauded for seeking professional treatment if he does have depression, but I'm not so sure that you are correct when you say mental ill health has no effect on his ability to lead.

    When I was diagnosed with clinical depression, the first thing my doctor did was sign me off work, and I think this is an extremely common first response. Depression has many side effects, including extreme fatigue, listlessness and a warped sense of reality - none of these things is conducive to doing a full-time job to the best of one's ability, never mind leading the country.

    In the end I rejected medication and quit my job to spend time focusing on my recovery. I was back to full form within a couple of months - turns out leaving my stressful job was what I needed to do.

    Perhaps its admirable that Gordon refuses to give in, but if he really is suffering from depression, I for one have very strong concerns about his fitness to lead - not because he's a 'mentalist', but because he needs a damn good rest.

  7. What @bureauista said. We don't know what the cause of his depression is, and it's possible it doesn't affect his work (I know that when my depression is bad, going to work is the best thing for me because my major trigger is feeling helpless and cashless at home, and if I'm working, I'm earning money) but it's also possible that it does.

    But I agree totally with the thrust of your piece: taking happy pills should not be something he is derided for, but applauded. But if he can find what he needs to do to not trigger himself, that will be better.

  8. I do not think that this came from Guido, he was merely passing it on.

  9. Re what @bureauista said - I am inclined to agree. I suppose it depends on *when* Gordon Brown became depressed. If it was a long time ago and he has accomodated to it, and been on medication for a significant period, which he is now used to, then great. But stories like 'rages, flying nokias' etc, if they are true, are not the signs of someone coping with their mental condition!

    I also agree that actually depression can be caused by a depressing situation/job, and that actually the best thing for his health might be to resign (not to mention for the country and the labour party!) rather than to medicate himself through it!

    I can't help feeling that Brown's political trajectory does look like the path of a man who has had the fight knocked out of him by Thatcherism/neoliberalism, and that must have effects on someone's psyche!

  10. I think it's fair to say that every PM in history has been in need of a damn good rest!

    Surely it's time to accept that our society values and encourages working practices that bring about unhealthy levels of pressure and stress. We equate success with being over-worked, spending most of our waking hours at a desk, and the rest attached to a blackberry.

    It seems disingenous to then be surprised when people inevitably show the detrimental effects of stress - and downright hypocritical to suggest they aren't up to the job as a result.

    Yes, the symptoms of depression may interfere with an individual's ability to carry out a stressful full-time job - but stressful full-time jobs can in many cases lead to depression (and a whole bag of other mental health fun).

    Thanks to the range of chemical mixes we have to play with these days, it's usually possible to manage the day-to-day symptoms of depression and its cohorts effectively. Leaving the stressful job might seem a simpler solution - but that essentially bars anyone with mental health issues from a wide range of fascinating and lucrative careers..

    Acknowledging that your mental health is a tad out of whack, and seeking the necessary support does not make you less capable.

    Besides, given the current state of affairs, depression is probably a pretty reasonable response..

  11. He should have more empathy with people for whom happy pills are less effective.

  12. If Gordon Brown's mental health issues affect his work, then it's a good thing that he is receiving treatment for it to enable him to do his job as effectively as possible.

    A part of effective leadership, I believe, is knowing when to get help, and knowing how to get the right kind of help.

    Incidentally, in response to @bureauista:

    When I was diagnosed with clinical depression, the first thing my doctor did was sign me off work, and I think this is an extremely common first response. Depression has many side effects, including extreme fatigue, listlessness and a warped sense of reality - none of these things is conducive to doing a full-time job to the best of one's ability, never mind leading the country.

    When work is deemed to be a contributory factor to the depression (as it was in my mother's case) then giving time off work is seen as a treatment for the problem, not as a "OMG this person isn't fit to do a job!" measure (in fact, my doctor prescribed for me that I should if possible continue in work at all costs as a part of my treatment programme). In fact, it is employers' misconception that depression or debilitating stress is not "conducive to doing a full-time job to the best of one's ability" that causes more problems! In fact, although those symptoms are indeed all associated with stress and/or depression, it is possible to do a very good job even so; what's more, if you have the right medication (alas, for some people finding out what is the right medication can take several years of trial and error) then many of those physical symptoms are mitigated. As for "warped sense of reality", there are many excellent techniques that sufferers of depression can use and have developed to overcome those problems (a great book about this is "Get It Done When You're Depressed", which is all about how to manage and keep on working even though you're suffering from depression). Very often, the fact of having a full-time job and of engaging with work that needs to be done is in itself an effective treatment (see above re: my doctor's prescription for me!) in that it forces one to overcome the issues that depression brings, imposes regularity and a system onto one's life and makes one get up and do things.

    Without knowing the details of Gordon Brown's consultation with his GP and/or medical specialists, it isn't our place to judge him or the advice he's following. Mr Brown remains as competent to run the country as he ever was (and opinions may or may not differ on how competent that actually is) and this news should not change our assessment of his PM-ship.


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