Sue Abderholden and Mark Mishek: An unhelpful inquisition

  • January 13, 2010 - 7:14 PM
Lincoln was an honest but undistinguished lawyer whose failures were more conspicuous than his successes," wrote psychiatrist Karl Menninger in "The Vital Balance." "This was when he was considered well -- before his mental illness made an appearance. What he became and what he achieved after his illness is part of our great national heritage."

Abraham Lincoln. Winston Churchill. Lawton Chiles. Harold Hughes. Jim Ramstad. All were politicians who disclosed that they had struggled to overcome a mental illness or addiction to alcohol or other drugs.

Now the Star Tribune, inspired by a self-disclosure from Mark Dayton about his medical condition, has asked every candidate for governor about his or her history of treatment for certain types of mental illness or addiction ("Gubernatorial hopefuls disclose mental health info," Jan. 12).

Our organizations, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Hazelden chemical dependency treatment center, are dismayed that the Star Tribune has, in effect, reproved thousands of Minnesotans who have benefited from mental health or addiction treatment.

Why was demanding that candidates reveal treatment for a mental illness or addiction a problem? First, the Star Tribune singled out a specific type of treatment. The newspaper didn't ask about a candidate's overall health and ability to withstand the rigors of the governor's job -- for example, whether they've sought treatment for cancer or other illnesses that are less prone to stigma.

There have been numerous elected officials who have governed while living with polio, heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, cancer -- to name a few. And there have been many officials who have led effectively while living with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or addiction. No one can argue anymore that receiving treatment for a chronic illness or disease -- cancer, addiction or diabetes -- should automatically disqualify someone for public office or, indeed, for any career.

Second, the Star Tribune didn't ask if candidates had experienced mental illness or had used alcohol and other drugs. Rather, candidates were asked if they'd been brave enough to seek treatment for those illnesses. Apparently, candidates who have an addiction or mental illness who declined to seek treatment are of no interest. Who at the Star Tribune can explain why medical privacy should be compromised for some forms of chronic illness, but not for others?

Third, and most important: Asking candidates about their medical history (and warning that a refusal to answer such an outrageous query would be published) damages years of our efforts to push mental illnesses into the mainstream of health care and to eliminate the stigma of treatment. You're asking if I ever sought treatment for a mental illness or addiction, even decades ago? No! Never! Not me! The reporter's question begged for a disavowal of ever coming near a treatment facility.

And what do the answers, given under duress, tell the voting public about how candidates might perform? Nothing. The responses were no more informative than if the Star Tribune were to reveal which of its own editors and writers have sought treatment for mental illness and addiction.

Sadly, the newspaper set up its questionnaire to imply that having mental illness or addiction is a failing that could be used to cancel out someone's candidacy -- or any other career one might pursue. We are distressed that a year after Congress approved the Wellstone-Domenici Parity Act -- a law ensuring that health insurance policies will address the treatment of mental health and addiction conditions the same as other illnesses -- the Star Tribune insists on approaching certain illnesses by its own rules.

The bottom line as we see it: Seeking treatment for any chronic illness -- such as depression and addiction, which have been stigmatized -- is, if anything, a sign of humility and courage.

Sue Abderholden is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota. Mark Mishek is president and CEO of Hazelden.

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