FEATURE: The link between mental illness and high political office

Richard Fitzpatrick ponders the link between abnormal psychology and political power — and finds that many of those who have achieved high office were not, in fact, as stable as we think.

FEATURE: The link between mental illness and high political office

IN times of crisis, it is better if our leaders are mad, argues Tufts University psychiatrist Nassir Ghaemi, author of the New York Times bestseller A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness. There is evidence, for example, that all five major leaders during World War Two were mentally ill or abnormal.

“I initially started this project because I was interested in the American Civil War,” says Ghaemi. “When my research extended to other periods of time, there was a high prevalence of depression and manic depression among great leaders that I didn’t expect.

“The idea that some of these great civil war generals had depression or manic depression and the worse generals were healthy and normal — that correlation held up in World War Two with Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill. It held up in the Cold War. It held up in other examples such as the civil rights struggles with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.”

The comparison of Chamberlain and Churchill is instructive. The gentlemanly Chamberlain had all the traits, points out Ghaemi, of a non-crisis leader — idealistic and optimistic about the world and himself; the product of a gilded upbringing and untested by adversity.The past having served him well, he was keen, therefore, to preserve it.

Churchill endured imprisonment,military campaigns and ignominious cabinet resignations. He alsosuffered from the black dog of depression, which, says, Ghaemi, gave him a more realistic world view in times of crisis, specifically in relation to the rise of Nazism, a threat which Chamberlain failed to appreciate.

“Churchill was a person with a lot of mood swings,” he says. “He certainly wasn’t very stable. He was very anxious and had these long periods of depression. He was even treated for it with amphetamines in the late-1930s.

“Chamberlain, in contrast, was a mentally stable individual. He was never treated for depression and was a very calm and tranquil person. One reason why Churchill was more realistic than Chamberlain in his judgement of the 1930s international crisis may have had to do with his severe depression, which is associated with increased realism; compared to being normal and it appears that Chamberlain was extremely normal.”

Ghaemi makes a distinction in the type of mental illness suffered by the eight crisis leaders he singles out, among them Abraham Lincoln, American Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman and entrepreneur Ted Turner. None were, or are, psychotic; rather they were prone to abnormal moods, to bouts of manic energy and depression, which helped imbue characteristics of creativity, empathy and, for example, the steely resilience displayed by John F Kennedy in navigating a safe passage through the Cuban Missile Crisis.

“Kennedy,” he says, “and Franklin Roosevelt, another example, and Churchill also, were people who have this mild temperament of high energy, [high] sexual drive, a sense of humour and [prone to being a] workaholic, which is very common among many people who are very productive and successful.

“This hyperthymia, this temperament of mild manic symptoms, occurs in people who also have depression, as Churchill did, or mania.

“Kennedy’s hyperthymic temperament meant he was abnormal in a good way because it made him very charismatic and productive, but also more sexually impulsive, as is typical of that kind of condition.

“In addition to that, Kennedy did have periods of depression in the 1950s. He had Addison’s disease, which was an illness of the adrenal glands, which can also predispose to depression. He talked about wanting to die by drowning and he was treated with amphetamines, partly for those depressive symptoms. And as I documented for the first time: in the White House, he was treated with anti-psychotics briefly for severe depression.”

Ghaemi makes the point that the middle management of the Nazi regime was made up of normal, sane people, whose sanity rendered them docile.

“In the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership, the vast majority were found to be mentally healthy and normal. They were studied very carefully psychiatrically. They tended to conform to this very extreme ideology that they followed from Hitler and others in the Nazi leadership. Conformism is an aspect of mental health and of being normal. Mentally healthy leaders tend to conform to the ideology or the social norms of the day.

“When you look at leaders like Tony Blair and George W Bush, for instance, both were mentally healthy. From what we know there’s no evidence, for instance, that Blair had any severe depression or was treated by a psychiatrist. He would meet most of the standards of mental health; the same thing with George W Bush.”

Both men were, however, overwhelmed by hubris in power. They got grandiose and messianic — driven, perhaps, by their religious certainty — in what they reckoned they could accomplish. Blair, outlined in a speech as far back as 1999 the “pivotal” role he believed beckoned for Britain, a middle-ranking power on the world stage, buoyed by his administration’s early successes in Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone.

Blair, argues Trinity professor Ian Robertson in his fascinating treatise, The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain, became hooked on the high power gave him, akin to the surge a person gets from snorting cocaine, which clouded his thinking.

“Unconstrained power would tip anyone into what would be abnormal behaviour, including almost psychiatric-type symptoms in some cases,” he says. “Blair developed an overestimation of his own judgement and his own powers. It led to atrophy — a reduction in his ability to perceive risk — and he became over confident. He did lose empathy, but that’s a feature of power — that you lose empathy for the people you hold power over. It did alter his judgement, and unfortunately led to the terrible consequences of the invasion of Iraq.”

Blair, of course, shares many attributes with Bertie Ahern, whose premiership overlapped almost to the year — both assumed office in 1997, while Ahern was ousted from power in 2008, a year after his British counterpart. Blair conferred predominately with his “sofa cabinet” of close advisors, chiefly Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell, for major decisions; Ahern lent on the Drumcondra Mafia for counsel.

Robertson discounts the notion that power distorted Ahern’s style of leadership. The former Taoiseach never became autocratic like Blair, he says.

“The country could have done with a bit more top-down, authoritarian control over such fiascos as the benchmarking and public service salaries, which Bertie just let go through. He was very much a man for trying to please everyone and having an easy life, which was completely the opposite of Blair. I don’t believe that he suffered from the hubris that Blair showed.”

Ahern, it seems, was only crazy in the administration of his personal finances.

*Nassir Ghaemi’s A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness is published by Penguin (€11.99); Ian Robertson’s The Winner Effect: How Power Affects Your Brain is published by Bloomsbury (€16.99).

More in this section

img MPU


Join our host Irish Examiner Life/Style Editor, Esther McCarthy with guests Caroline Casey, Emer O'Neill, Edel Coffey and Dr. Tara Shine as we make a call to action for accelerating women's equality.

ieFood pic
ieFood Logo

In the Kitchen with

 Video Series

Join Colm O'Gorman in his kitchen as he makes flatbreads in minutes and crispy air fryer chicken. Explore why he thinks chilli is the spice of life, and find out why his 50-year-old food mixer is his most important piece of kitchen equipment.

Puzzles logo

Puzzles hub

Visit our brain gym where you will find simple and cryptic crosswords, sudoku puzzles and much more. Updated at midnight every day. PS ... We would love to hear your feedback on the section right HERE.


The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up