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There was a time when the public admission of mental illness could derail a candidate's political career.
That could still happen to Mark Dayton, the Democratic candidate for governor who went public this week with his history of depression. But if so, experts say, it's the stigma -- not the disease itself -- that would sabotage his run for office.
Today, more than a decade into Prozac Nation, there is no reason why someone being treated for mild to moderate depression shouldn't hold a job with enormous responsibility, doctors say. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill both suffered from depression, they say, and that was long before Prozac and even more effective medications that are available now.
"It's just a disability," said Dr. Steve Miles, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota and former candidate for the U.S. Senate who has bipolar disorder. "I take medicines. I show up for work. If depression disqualified people, we'd have to put 20 percent of [the population] on welfare."
Mental illness is not the political kiss of death it once was, partly because it's now more widely recognized as a treatable brain disease. Depression is now regarded as one of the most common medical conditions, affecting as many as one in five people at some point in their lives, by some estimates.
But there is still enough stigma that many people commended Dayton for disclosing his history with both depression and alcoholism. On Sunday the former U.S. senator confirmed in an interview in the Star Tribune's opinion section that he has long been medicated for depression. A recovering alcoholic, Dayton also said he relapsed before the end of his Senate term, but has remained sober since 2007.
Back in 1972, Sen. Thomas Eagleton of Missouri was forced to drop out as the Democratic vice presidential nominee after reports surfaced that he had had electroshock treatment for depression.
Since then few politicians have admitted their battles with chemical dependency or mental illness.
But some have -- and survived. Among them: former Sen. Lawton Chiles, who was elected governor of Florida in 1991 after disclosing his depression; and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., who was reelected to Congress after publicly acknowledging bipolar depression and chemical dependency.
"I think we've come light years as a nation," said Jim Ramstad, a retired Republican congressman from Minnetonka. Ramstad, a recovering alcoholic, has been open about his chemical-dependency since a drinking binge landed him in jail in 1981, when he was a first-term state senator. He praised Dayton for coming forward.
"I don't think his relapse should disqualify him from public office," Ramstad said. Minnesota voters, he added, are fair-minded and "understand the disease of addiction. I learned that firsthand, that as long as you're upfront and honest with them, they will accept you and reach out to you."
Sue Abderholden, a longtime mental-health advocate, admits she was torn by Dayton's disclosure. Anytime someone famous admits depression, she said, "it helps decrease the wall of stigma." But Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she was also "kind of saddened" that the disease may become a negative campaign issue.
It may be fair to question whether someone with a mental illness can cope with a high-stress job. But getting treatment is a sign of strength, not weakness, she said.
The stigma of mental illness is still the primary impediment to treatment, doctors say.
"People say 'I don't want my boss to find out, I'll lose my job,'" said Dr. Paul Goering, medical director of mental health at Allina Hospitals & Clinics. But if people can't acknowledge they have depression, they won't seek medical care, he said.
Brian Doran, 66, of White Bear Lake said he kept his diagnosis secret for years.
"It felt like a failure on my part," he said. "As I learned later, it's not a failure. It happens to people."
But with effective treatment, he was able to rise through the ranks at 3M Corp., becoming the marketing director of one of the company's international divisions before he retired seven years ago. "I thrived even with this condition," said Doran, now a board member at the Mental Health Association's Minnesota affiliate.
As did Eagleton. After withdrawing as George McGovern's running mate in 1972, he was reelected by the voters of Missouri and served in the U.S. Senate until 1987.
Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394 Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384