By Donella Meadows
–August 11, 1988–
The rumor was that Michael Dukakis had been treated by a psychiatrist for depression in 1973 after the death of his brother in a hit-and-run accident. No such thing, said his campaign staff. After days of suspense, the Dukakis medical records were released, unblemished by any encounter with a mental health professional. Democrats breathed sighs of relief, and the nation turned to other forms of summer fun.
It was just a campaign-year flap, a press-magnified rumor. But even disproved rumors leave unfortunate residues. This one encrusted and solidified the widespread assumption that something is dreadfully wrong with anyone who seeks counseling for his or her mental health.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, during any given six-month period one-fifth of all Americans suffer from mental problems, usually anxiety, depression, or compulsions such as alcoholism. Well over half the population (some studies say 80 percent) will experience at least a mild mental disorder sometime during their lifetime. Only seven percent of them will seek professional help.
The fuss last week told the people of this country nothing about Michael Dukakis. But it communicated clearly that going to a psychiatrist not only makes one unfit to be President, but is a shameful act, never to be admitted to the imperturbable, emotionally self-sufficient, normal people who make up this world. I heard no one say that it might be all right, even healthy, to hurt occasionally and to ask for help when you’re hurting.
It seems sensible to me to seek counseling to cope with grief over the sudden and senseless death of a brother. Grief is normal and human; it shows that one has the capability to make loving attachments. It is not a chronic disease that would preoccupy or debilitate a President.
The press and the public can distinguish between normality and abnormality when it comes to physical health. The record revealed that Dukakis had visited doctors for tonsillitis and a broken collar bone. No one panicked. We know the difference between those unremarkable ailments and others — a serious heart condition perhaps — that might have compromised his ability to carry out the most responsible and stressful job in the land.
Apparently we are not so well informed about mental health. That’s sad and scary, for two reasons. A person who expects to be ridiculed if he admits to a mental health problem will be less likely to deal effectively with the problem. And a society that expects people, especially leaders, to go through life with stiff upper lips, plowing cheerfully through all difficulties, and never looking closely at what’s going on inside, may have to pay a high price for its veneer of emotional stability.
I wonder how many medical bills are incurred and how much productivity is lost in this country because of untreated mental problems that turn into physical problems. I wonder whether it makes sense for so many medical insurance plans not to cover mental health treatment, given that mind and body are separate from each other not in reality but only in our minds.
I also wonder what might happen to a leader who has suppressed his emotions all his life, if those emotions are suddenly triggered all at once in a time of unusual crisis. I wonder how much of the world’s political craziness stems from normal mental upsets in leaders and in the people who elect, support, or tolerate leaders — upsets that could be treated as easily as infected tonsils, but that, left to fester, erupt in strange ways.
Anais Nin, brooding on the causes of war, said once, “I knew the origin of war, which was in each of us, and I knew that our concept of the hero was outdated, that the modern hero was the one who would master his own neurosis so that it would not become universal, who would struggle with his myths, who would enter the labyrinth to fight the monster, this monster who sleeps at the bottom of his own brain.”
Nothing is more mystical and frightening to most of us than the workings of our own minds. It takes considerable courage to face up to emotional uneasiness and to find help for it — more courage than to deny and conceal it. The many people I know who work in the mental health profession, and the many more who have benefited from its services, demonstrate to me regularly that it takes strength, not weakness, to seek counseling — and the counseling, if it’s competent, makes one even stronger.
No one wants a President who is mentally ill. We all want someone who is strong under stress. We also want a superperson with no weaknesses, physical or emotional, but that’s not what we’ll ever get. We’ll get a human being, hopefully one who is wise enough to turn to professionals of all sorts, whenever necessary, to help enhance his strengths and correct for his inevitable, understandable human weaknesses.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988