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Thirty Years After Eagleton Controversy, Mental Health Stigma Still Haunts Political Arena

WASHINGTON, Oct. 1 -- Thirty years after Democrats replaced Vice Presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton because of concerns about his mental health, the stigma surrounding depression and other mood disorders still poses a substantial obstacle for many people who would seek public office, according to a national survey released today. This obstacle remains despite the tremendous gains that have been made in the treatment of such illnesses.

A survey of 1,200 U.S. adults by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) revealed that, in a race for national office where all other factors were equal, nearly one in four (24%) would vote against a candidate who had been diagnosed with clinical depression, while another 24% said they "might not" vote for them. It also found that nearly one in three (31%) believe that people with mood disorders are not stable enough to hold positions of authority in fields like law enforcement and government, while half (51%) feel that people should publicly disclose such diagnoses if they seek office.

"Just as Thomas Eagleton encountered stigma surrounding mental health in 1972, stigma persists today," said DBSA Executive Director Lydia Lewis, referring to the former Missouri Senator who was tapped for the number two spot on the 1972 Democratic ticket. Eagleton was then promptly replaced following news reports that he had twice undergone electroconvulsive therapy.

"Our perceptions need to catch up to our medical achievements," Lewis said. "Medical breakthroughs today allow us to successfully treat 80 to 90 percent of people diagnosed with depression. Treatment is available, and treatment works."

Too often, she said, stigma punishes people who seek help, and it discourages people from seeking treatment who could be helped. More than 20 million Americans currently live with depression, while another 2.5 million live with bipolar disorder. Lewis said evidence indicates several U.S. Presidents have lived with such conditions, including Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson.

Lewis noted that Eagleton continued to serve with distinction in the Senate for another 14 years after the incident, and his service included a seat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, where he was trusted with some of the nation’s most sensitive security matters.

The political process itself has often contributed to stigma related to mental illness, evident in the following examples:

  • Rumors of mental illness that were used against Michael Dukakis' 1988 bid for the presidency. When asked his opinion about Mr. Dukakis' refusal to release his medical records, then-President Ronald Reagan said: "I am not going to pick on an invalid." Dukakis' personal physician issued a statement dispelling the rumors.
  • Political consultant Lee Atwater’s remark in 1980 that South Carolina congressional candidate Tom Turnipseed had been "hooked up to jumper cables," referring to electric convulsive treatments Turnipseed had received as therapy for bi-polar disorder as a high school and college student. Turnipseed lost the race.
  • An October 1964 poll by the now-defunct Fact magazine in which more than 1,189 of the 2,417 psychiatrists answered "no" to the question, "Is Barry Goldwater psychologically fit to be President of the United States?" Goldwater’s opponents seized upon the magazine’s "findings" as justification to circulate bumper stickers declaring: "In your guts, you know he’s nuts."

"Instead of helping to perpetuate stigma, our political leaders should be leading the efforts to eliminate it," Lewis said. "They are just as vulnerable to mood disorders and to stigma as anyone. When stigma enters the political arena, everyone loses"

For the DBSA survey, communications consulting firm Lipman Hearne conducted 1,200 interviews, balanced to reflect U.S. Census figures for geography, gender, age (18 and over) and ethnic background.

Fifty-two percent said they would vote for a candidate for national office who had once been diagnosed for depression. Women (56%) were more likely than men (49%) to vote for such a candidate.

DBSA (previously known as National DMDA) is the nation’s largest patient-directed organization that provides help and information on depression, bipolar disorder and other mood disorders. Founded in 1986 and based in Chicago, it has a grassroots network of more than 1,000 patient-run support groups that hold regular meetings across the United States and Canada. Over one million people request assistance from DBSA each year.

page created: May 9, 2006
 page updated: May 9, 2006