With only a few months before we vote to decide on the 45th president of the United States, campaigns are in full swing. That means no holding back with the insults and accusations. Both major party candidates accused their competition of suffering from mental illness even before accepting their party nominations.
It’s easy to dismiss questions about a candidate’s mental health, but there is a certain measure of presidential “fitness” we all hold candidates to that cannot be ignored. After all, doesn’t it take a person of clear mind, unburdened by the symptoms of mental instability, to be successful in politics? It turns out, the answer is no.
What Makes a Presidential Mind?
While it’s not likely that either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump suffers from the type of delusional, debilitating mental instability their opponent would like to believe they do, many of their presidential predecessors carried out terms in the White House while battling serious mental conditions. Some of them even did quite a good job of it.
In fact, taking a look back at America’s presidential roster with the knowledge of psychology we have today, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that about half of all U.S. presidents have dealt with some form of mental disorder.
To make sense of this figure, it’s important to consider how vast our knowledge of mental health is today. Many conditions that were simply attributed to the rigors of life in times past have now been identified as serious mental issues.
A White House History of Mental Illness
Depression is a good example of such a condition. Being in a perpetual state of melancholy can’t possibly make it any easier to be leader of the free world, yet such famous leaders as James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Calvin Coolidge and even Abraham Lincoln all exhibited symptoms of depression during their time in office.
Dealing with the pressures of being president has driven men to drug abuse and alcoholism. Richard Nixon once had to decline a high-stakes call from the British prime minister because he was “too loaded” to answer. Even John F. Kennedy, one of America’s most beloved presidential figures, was reported to have taken up to 12 different medications a day.
Other conditions suffered by White House residents include social phobia, which affected Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant; generalized anxiety disorder; and dementia, which sadly affected conservative hero Ronald Regan during his time in office.
What Fit to Lead Really Means
It has been said, “everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Even if you’ve never met the president of the United States, it’s pretty easy to comprehend such a person undergoes ordeals unlike anything most of us will ever endure.
Each of the people mentioned above was capable of this, despite suffering from real, substantial mental conditions, which is why the conversation about a president’s psychological health isn’t a conversation about the president, but rather about how we view mental conditions in general.
The fact is, were any of these people so afflicted as to be incapable of leadership, their careers as politicians or businesspeople would have been affected by that long before they ever reached the White House. It’s not accurate to say most mentally ill people aren’t capable of being president. It would be more accurate to say most people with a mental condition are as capable as anyone of earning the job.
A New Perspective
Killing the stigma associated with mental health disorders almost requires going back to the time when Abraham Lincoln and John Quincy Adams were elected. Each candidate was judged against their peers by the quality of their character.
To introduce mental health to the political arena now, when we know so much, is a ruse that the American public should be above. Yes, there are psychological disorders that can sadly render people unable to perform the roles politicians play. Those people deserve our respect and support. But while Clinton and Trump may engage in some strange behavior, neither one appears to be in that category.
Mental Conditions Don’t Make Bad Leaders
We should ask questions about whether a person is fit to be president. It’s a high-stakes job, and if one’s physical or mental health could potentially place the well-being of American citizens in question, we need to think very hard about whether to endorse them. But we should also be open-minded.
If half of all the people who’ve served the United States as president have suffered from a mental disorder of some kind, that means half have not. We’ve already named a few of the great ones who were afflicted — Kennedy and Lincoln, two of our most widely beloved presidents.
Just as there are great leaders who’ve overcome the traumas of mental illness, there are awful ones who didn’t have to. Failure is not a symptom of mental illness. It is something any person is capable of. To judge a person a failure after climbing as far as the presidential nomination based on their mental condition would be selling them far short.
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