Mental Illness, Politics Increasingly Intersect

It’s a bit frightening watching as the mental illness and political worlds increasingly overlap.

When I started writing on two tracks—one focused on mental illness and another on politics and public policy—I thought I was covering different subjects. Now, it’s clear that understanding mental illness and its remedies contributes to comprehending and working in our political system—recognition I share with no desire to diminish either topic.

Consider the following:

  • Schizophrenia is a mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real,” according to Wikipedia. “Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and lack of motivation.” As we look at public policy today, how often do we find political debates rooted in falsehoods, clear policy inconsistencies and words twisted by political opponents to suggest they mean something other than what we heard. As is the case with schizophrenia, improving our political system requires multimodal treatment that includes educational, social and other interventions, including direct treatment of some of the primary causes of the psychosis in the system. In government, the psychosis often originates in a disconnected, dysfunctional political system.
  • According to Mayo Clinic, Narcissistic Personality Disorder “is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultra confidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism.” Can you think of anyone from the political world for whom this description applies? Understanding narcissism is too often critical to understanding politicians.

  • Depression is defined at MayoClinic.org as “a mood disorder that causes a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest . . .. It affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems. You may have trouble doing normal day-to-day activities.” Depression, even in its most severe form, can be treated, but the treatment generally requires the active engagement of those affected. The same can be said of our political system. It won’t fix itself. We must become engaged and take the steps within our control to fix the system. With depression, treating sleep problems and substance abuse can help, along with exercising, getting out into open sunlight, improving our diet and particularly changing our thought processes. At times, treatment requires medication to address brain chemistry imbalances. With government, active involvement in the process is required to create the policies and practices we desire. As is the case with depression, problems can’t just be wished away. There is no possibility of just getting over it.
  • Anxiety Disorders often accompany depression, including social anxiety and panic disorders. In all cases, anxieties become a disorder when they are “persistent, seemingly uncontrollable, and overwhelming,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). Fears can paralyze or motivate, a fact that many politicians exploit. Negative advertising is pervasive because it frequently works, particularly when done in a way to both motivate target voters and paralyze opposition support. Steps that can be beneficial in controlling anxiety disorders are equally applicable in the political and public policy worlds. Take deep breaths. Find a relaxation practice like meditation or yoga. Sleep. Exercise. Accept that perfection and control aren’t always possible. Welcome humor, an important skill increasingly discouraged by the politically correct police. Get involved in something meaningful. All of these actions give us the strength to keep going when it is easier to be overwhelmed and immobilized.
  • Addiction and Impulse Control Disorders are difficult-to-control actions that lead to self-harm or harm to others. In the mental health world, these disorders include alcohol and drug abuse, pyromania, kleptomania and compulsive gambling. In the political world, similar disorders are common. It’s not at all unusual to find politicians so addicted to scorched-earth politics that they can’t help themselves from launching personal attacks without even a meaningful purpose. Preventing politicians from becoming addicted to money and politics at the expense of constituents requires critical intervention. Many people are able to be around harmful substances without becoming addicted. Some, however, have to abstain to survive or they take themselves down, and others with them. As voters, we need to force abstention on those showing an inability to control their own impulses.

I didn’t expect a convergence between politics and mental illness when I started writing down these two paths. As I have studied more deeply in both directions, I’m finding important concepts overlapping far too frequently.

One conclusion is clear: Understanding mental illness, and how to combat it, can be useful in understanding our current political system and how to engage with it.

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