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Opinion Canadians aren’t really ready to talk about mental health. The way we vote proves it

Peter Loewen is a professor in the Department of Political Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. Ludovic Rheault is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.

As initiatives like Bell’s Let’s Talk Day work to move mental illness out of the shadows, there is increasing understanding that mental health should receive the same support and coverage as physical health. Nonetheless, there is still a substantial stigma attached to mental-health challenges, enough that individuals often conceal their struggles, avoid treatment and suffer in silence – in part because they anticipate punishment from their peers.

This is not surprising. We apply our judgments unevenly. We are willing to extend compassion to those we know, while often denying it to those who are distant from us. The compassion we extend to family members often does not reach colleagues or acquaintances.

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Politics provides an interesting test case for our compassion towards those with mental-health struggles. It is a life lived largely in public, and it is one in which public judgments are truly consequential.

Are we ready to accept with compassion that politicians may also suffer from depression?

There are several examples of politicians who dealt with depression. Abraham Lincoln suffered from a “profound melancholy” and, as a young man, he often contemplated suicide. Winston Churchill struggled with his “black dog” throughout his life, and mental illness stalked his father; a daughter died by suicide. There are examples that are closer to home in our own politics, too. But admissions of depression and other forms of mental illness are much less commonly revealed in politicians than the rate of mental illness in the general population would suggest.

Why are our public leaders seemingly unwilling to share their own struggles with us, when so much of the rest of their lives is put on display?

We measured how much voters in Canada and the United States might punish politicians who have suffered from depression. Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do this. One is to find instances of politicians who in real life have revealed a diagnosis of depression, and then observe their electoral fortunes after this revelation. The problem with this approach is that it does not happen very often, and politicians might reveal this for many strategic reasons, all of which make it tough to cleanly measure the public’s reaction. The other approach, which we took, is to ask participants in a representative sample survey to read short paragraphs about hypothetical politicians and tell us which they would be more likely to support. So we asked citizens to choose between two candidates vying for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. One of the candidate profiles includes a past diagnosis of depression, cancer or high blood pressure.

The results were inescapably negative. The candidate who suffers from depression receives nearly 10 per cent fewer votes than the same candidate who suffers instead from a physical ailment. When we asked a similar question among Canadian respondents about candidates for the House of Commons, the penalty for depression was similarly large.

This public sanction does not depend on how much time away from work a politician would have to spend. Our candidate profiles included information about the time taken off from work related to the medical condition. The candidate who has suffered from depression but will miss no work is punished as severely as the candidate with cancer who needs to take off a month per year to maintain their health. When we ask citizens to consider an incumbent candidate with depression or another ailment versus a challenger, we get the same kind of results. Voters are much less likely to vote for a candidate who has been diagnosed with depression, even if it required them to miss comparatively less work. The results in Canada and the United States are essentially the same.

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Our data provide some clues as to why voters tend to punish politicians with depression. After they read the profiles, respondents were asked to indicate which candidate they thought was most trustworthy, was most prepared and had the best character. For every characteristic, candidates with depression were rated lower than candidates with a physical ailment. Simply put, voters judge politicians with depression as less suitable for office.

We should want people in public life who are struggling with depression to be able to open up about it. That may help them be better representatives, as they can openly bring to bear their experiences in debate over health policy. Perhaps most importantly, they can act as role models for those in the population also beset by depression. But this requires us first to better understand mental health and to be willing to extend our compassion even further still.

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