Mental Illness – even if it’s Gordon Brown’s – is not Interesting.

Dependably right-wing blogger Paul “Guido Fawkes” Staines has been circulating the idea that Gordon Brown may be taking anti-depressants – specifically, Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors – under the touching and understanding heading “Is Brown Bonkers?”  and making some sniggering schoolboy allusions to Malcolm Tucker-like tantrums.  This allegation – and quite why it’s an allegation is beyond me – leads Fawkes to muse that

[i]n the context of all this speculation and his manifest physical unease, surely somebody in the Lobby has to publicly ask the question at the PM’s next monthly briefing: “Prime Minister, have you been taking medication that may affect your judgement?”

But it’s not just Staines that’s casting doubt on Brown’s mental health: he’s asked me to point out, and I’m happy to clarify, that he’s simply following up a story in the Independent that was saying the same thing, except more speculatively (and coquettishly)

Senior Whitehall bods are reported as noting that [Brown] was recently given a long list of things he absolutely must avoid, and that among these are Chianti and cheese. Both are well-known for causing a violent, even lethal reaction to a specific group of heavy duty antidepressants known as MAOIs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors).

See how it works: there’s a rumour that Brown has been given a list of foods to avoid, a suggestion that this might be because of some medication, and BINGO! he’s a nutcase.  Of course, because his article’s in the Indy, Matthew Norman is careful to add all kinds of “Of course, I’m not saying…” caveats –

[w]hether literally the case or not, however, this rumour carries the kind of psychological truth that tends to be more damaging than fact.

– but only after having demanded disclosure:

You’d have thought that whether our Prime Minister is severely clinically depressed falls loosely under the public interest header, but what can you do? Our political system regards secrecy less as desirable than its raison d’etre.

See?  From “There might be some foods the PM’s avoiding” to “There’s a conspiracy to cover up the fact that he’s bananas” in two easy steps, with a little side-helping of “I’m not saying that… except I am” as a garnish.  Of course, there’s a range of references to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, natch, because there was a law passed in 1473 saying that every media story about mental health had to have at least one such citation.  Possibly.

There’s a range of things to question about this story: first, if medical confidentiality is important, then presumably it’s important for politicians as well as us.  If Brown has a problem with depression, then, frankly, that’s his business unless and until he’s unable to do the job – and, again, it’s his ability to do the job that counts, not any medical consideration that might prevent it.  THERE IS NO NEED FOR DISCLOSURE OF THE DETAILS OF HIS MENTAL HEALTH; there’s certainly no obligation to disclose.  Second, if he has a problem with depression, and if – pace Guido – he’s taking medication that’ll affect his judgement, then good.  The medication, presumably, is going to help him think more clearly.  That’s likely to affect his judgement for the better.  If he’s depressed, then I think judgement-affecting medications are pretty high on the list of things he should be considering.  Good for him.

Third – and, in a sense, most importantly – if Brown has a mental illness of any sort, is it really that interesting?  I mean: suppose he was diagnosed with bronchitis, or broke his leg, or something like that.  We’d shrug our collective shoulders, and expect him to go easy for a bit while he convalesced.  Why, for the love of crikey, should mental illness be any different?  If he’s ill, he’s ill.  It’s no big deal.  Prurience aside, it’s not all that interesting.  It’s certainly not the sort of thing that should have broadsheet columnists speculating about the party leadership.  Except – of course – we’re hung up on the idea that mental illness is special: that people who have a mental illness are wild-eyed lunatics that you can’t trust to run a bath, let alone a country.  We find it hard to accept the possibility that depression might be caused by a stressful job and not enough sleep (Brown wouldn’t be alone in the Commons in having this sort of problem, apparently), and is generally just a part of life’s rich pageant.  Perish the thought that we might be as mature about it as the Norwegians were a few years ago, when their PM was diagnosed with depression.  Maturity like that isn’t the British way.  We’d much rather point, laugh, and deep in our hearts get a little bit scared.

Laurie Penny, over at Liberal Conspiracy, makes a similar point:

We have no way of substantiating this rumor, but let’s for a moment run with the assumption that Brown is taking anti-depressants.

My response? Good. Great. If the Prime Minister of Britain is suffering from depression or some other mental health condition, which given the stresses of his current position seems highly likely, then I’m glad he’s getting treatment for it. I’m glad he’s man enough to admit that he might need help.

Anti-depressants are used by millions of people in this country, although the stigma attached means that many of us don’t talk about it, and in almost all cases barring those of people detained against their will in institutions, the process is both voluntary and helpful. It takes courage to go to the doctor and say that you have a problem, even if you’re not a leading political figure who’s constantly in the public eye.

I only wish more politicians would follow his example – after all, it’s not as if mental health difficulties in government are unheard of.


[I]s the ‘Prime Mentalist’, as he has become known, a person who has mental health problems? It certainly seems likely . Would that fact, by definition, make him unfit to lead the country? Absolutely not.

On the other hand, Penny admits to mental health problems in the past, so we perhaps ought to discount the opinions expressed in the article.  After all, you can’t trust a mental, can you?

[NB – I’ve edited this slightly at the request of Paul Staines.  The substance is the same, though.]

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