Past evidence and modern values make it wrong to assume that a mental health condition makes someone unfit for public office.
Senator Michael Kirby talks with the Star’s editorial board about mental health in 2005. In 2006, a groundbreaking report, “Out of the Shadows,” by Kirby sparked the establishment of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. (Lucas Oleniuk / Toronto Star)
When should someone be deemed unfit for public office? Clearly, questions of morals and unprofessional behaviour led to Don Meredith’s resignation from the Canadian Senate. And recently, a disgraceful racial slur caused a York School Trustee to step down from her position.
But what about the unpredictable, incendiary and often vulgar actions of U.S. President Donald Trump? Even before the dramatic firing of former FBI director James Comey, allegations about the president’s mental health have been mounting.
Escalating the situation were two provocatively titled articles in The Washington Post this past week.
“When is it OK to say the president might be nuts?” blared one headline on May 2. The president had just finished an angry speech directed mostly at the media but which also included a bizarre reference to former president Andrew Jackson. Trump seemed to imply that Jackson could have stopped the American Civil War, although Jackson had died 16 years before the war began.
The following day, George Will, a highly respected American journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, wrote “Trump has a dangerous disability” and asked if Trump was uniquely unfit to take the nation into a military conflict. He noted the president has an “untrained mind bereft of information married to stratospheric self-confidence” and further skewered Trump by commenting “that the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something.”
In 1964, Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, was deemed unfit by 1,000 psychiatrists who had never met with him. Goldwater subsequently launched a $2 million libel suit against a magazine and publisher who printed a story reporting these findings. The Supreme Court awarded Mr. Goldwater, $1 in compensatory damages and $75,000 in punitive damages.
Subsequently, the American Psychiatrists Association, sensing a legal and ethical chill, adopted the Goldwater rule in 1973, which prevents psychiatrists from diagnosing someone they have not met.
However, past evidence and modern values make it wrong to assume that a mental health condition makes someone unfit for public office.
A study by Jonathan David of the Duke University Medical Center, reviewed the histories of the first 37 presidents, finding that half of them had been afflicted with mental illness. “The study concluded that 24 per cent met the diagnostic criteria for depression.” Additionally, both anxiety and bipolar disorders were also discovered while 8 per cent of the presidents demonstrated alcohol abuse or dependence.
Very capable politicians who experience mental health issues or addiction challenges are numerous. Abraham Lincoln lived with clinical depression throughout his life. Winston Churchill famously fought “the Black Dog” of depression. Patrick Kennedy, son of Teddy Kennedy, after serving 16 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, resigned and became a mental health advocate after writing a book about his own struggles with mental health.
North American society is currently engaged in a mega effort to bring mental health and its issues into the open. In 2006, a groundbreaking report Out of the Shadows by former Senator Michael Kirby sparked the establishment of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Since then, individuals and corporations have created projects, such as Bell’s Let’s Talk.
The Canadian Mental Health Association estimates 20 per cent of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime, while American statistics peg the number at 18.5 per cent. Of that percentage, some of those individuals have run or will run for office.
A struggle with mental illness must not prevent someone from holding public office. If that was the case, the world may have missed some of its most brilliant leaders in the past and for the future.
Instead, let’s unmask those who seek to destroy and divide. Those who are unethical and immoral. Those who are racist or misogynistic. They are the ones who are not fit for office.
Penny Collenette is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Ottawa and was a senior director of the Prime Minister’s Office for Jean Chrétien.