Saturday, July 30, 2011

Stigma-Buster of the Year: Nassir Ghaemi

When times are good and the ship of state only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as political leaders. But in times of crisis and tumult, those who are mentally abnormal, even ill, become the greatest leaders. We might call this the Inverse Law of Sanity.

Thus opens a feature piece in today’s Wall Street Journal, Depression in Command, by Nassir Ghaemi (pictured here), Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts. The piece is based on his new book, due out on Aug 4, "A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness."

Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, and King are the case studies cited in Dr Ghaemi’s article.

Similarly, an article in this week’s Newsweek, Madman In Chief, riffing off Ghaemi, concludes:

In Ghaemi’s view, even our supposedly crazy leaders were too sane for their times, and the nation suffered. When Richard Nixon faced the Watergate crisis, “he handled it the way an average [normal person] would handle it: he lied, and he dug in, and he fought.” Similarly, George W. Bush was “middle of the road in his personality traits,” which is why his response to the September 11 attacks was simplistic, unwavering, and, above all, “normal.”

So should we bring on the crazy in 2012? At the very least, we should rethink our definitions and stop assuming that normality is always good, and abnormality always bad. If Ghaemi is right, that is far too simplistic and stigmatizing, akin to excluding people by race or religion—only possibly worse because excellence can clearly spring from the unwell, and mediocrity from the healthy. The challenge is getting voters to think this way, too. It won’t do to have candidates shaking Prozac bottles from the podium, unless the public is ready to reward them for it. Amid multiple wars and lingering recession, maybe that time is now.

Dr Ghaemi is by no means the first to note the positive association between mental illness and extraordinary achievement, but no one has done it with such clarity and impact. Ironically, Dr Ghaemi informed me two months ago at a social function at the Ninth International Conference on Bipolar Disorder in Pittsburgh that he had a hell of a time finding a publisher.

I first ran into Dr Ghaemi in 2002 in Philadelphia at the American Psychiatric Association’s Annual Meeting. Back then, he belonged to a minority that questioned the efficacy of using antidepressants on patients with bipolar or with bipolar-like symptoms. Plus, he was writing on the obscure psychiatrist-philosopher Karl Jaspers and other cool stuff.

Listen to Dr Ghaemi for even a few minutes and you are going to learn a lot. I sought out Dr Ghaemi at future conferences and we developed a correspondence and friendship. It is no exaggeration to say that a lot of what you read on Knowledge is Necessity derives from seeds he planted in my mind over the years.

In 2006, Dr Ghaemi wrote an unbelievably commendatory blurb for my book, “Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder.” He was being gracious, but hardly charitable. Trust me, had he thought my effort was the worst piece of crap shoved between two covers he would not have minced words.

I am looking forward to running a series of pieces based on “A First-Rate Madness” as soon as I get my hands on the book. Meanwhile, even prior to publication date, its presence is being felt. Already, people are starting to rethink mental illness in a positive way. A conversation is starting to take place. The title to this piece is no hyperbole. This could be big.


eingriff said...

I'll defer to Emily Dickinson:

Much madness is divinest sense

To a discerning eye;

Much sense the starkest madness.

’T is the majority

In this, as all, prevails.

Assent, and you are sane;

Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,

And handled with a chain.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Eingriff. Very powerful. Dickinson says it all.