Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

A Psychiatrist's Eulogy for Thomas Eagleton

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

A Psychiatrist's Eulogy for Thomas Eagleton

Article excerpt

Senator, citizen, patient, and would-be vice president of the United States, you died on March 4, 2007. The ubiquitous obituaries in the local and national papers highlighted a special time in your life--and in the history of psychiatry.

The year was 1972. You were hastily asked to be on the Democratic ticket with Sen. George McGovern, the party's presidential nominee. I was just beginning my psychiatric training. You were shortly to experience the power of psychiatric stigma. I was to learn from your experience what stigma means to patients and psychiatrists; that lesson has stayed with me since.

Shortly after you were picked for the ticket--without much of a check into your background--a story emerged that you had been treated previously for mental illness, hospitalized at least three times and given ECT, though the last time was 6 years before. A psychiatrist in your hometown, when visited by the press, reportedly slammed the door on the reporters, saying, "I can't talk to you about that!" Did you cringe when she said it? Though she was trying to protect the ethical principle of confidentiality, her action was interpreted as an admission that you were, indeed, her patient.

The reporter who broke the story shared the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. In an interview on National Public Radio shortly after your death, one of the journalists, Clark Hoyt, said he thought that mental health history was relevant to fitness for office. After all, he wondered, how might you have been affected by your illness during a nuclear crisis?

All of us alive at the time should know the rest of the story. You dropped out of the race, McGovern's campaign deteriorated, and Richard Nixon won. Given the history of that administration, did what happened to you compound the tragedy? Ironically, right before you died, U.S. News & World Report ran a cover story called "America's Worst Presidents" (Feb. 26, 2007), which listed Nixon as one of the worst in history.

Perhaps you heard of the study published last year about mental illness in American presidents from 1776 to 1974 (J. Nerv. Ment. Dis. 2006;194:47-51). According to its authors, almost half of the men who have led our country could have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder at some time. Almost one-quarter--10 of them!--manifested illness during the presidency itself. Guess who was among the 10? Nixon. In fact, he was one of only three (with Franklin Pierce and Herbert Hoover) who made both the study's list and the 'America's Worst Presidents" list in U.S. News.

Presidents do not seem to fare any better or worse than the rest of us when it comes to mental illness. The prevalence is just about the same among them as the general population. The only difference is that severe mental illness seems much less prevalent among presidents.

Of course, we can only speculate how McGovern might have been as president. And we'll never know how you might have performed, had your ticket gone on to win the White House. But we do know the way that you lived out your life. You apparently weathered the stress of your abbreviated participation in the campaign, and went on to have a distinguished career in public and private life. You continued to serve in the U.S. Senate through 1987; your psychiatric history did not diminish your appeal to voters in Missouri, the "Show Me" state. I guess you continued to show that your depression did not impair your ability to function.

Were you pleased when Lawton Chiles was able to deal with a similar circumstance, even if he wasn't running for the highest office? In 1990, former Sen. Chiles (D-Fla.) came out of retirement to run for governor of Florida. The media broke the story that he had had depression and was on Prozac. Chiles readily admitted to depression and said that Prozac was helpful. He stayed in the race and defeated the Republican incumbent.

Did you ever think your depression was like Winston Churchill's? …

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