Depression is a debilitating disease that has cost our country billions of dollars and thousands of lives each year. However, despite the debilitating problems that mentally stressed and depressed people face, there is growing evidence that those persons may possess qualities that make them better leaders in times of crisis than “normal” people.
Nassir Ghaemi explains why in his novel, A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. Dr. Ghaemi, a professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine, has studied the mental health of famous leaders including Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Do some qualities of depressed or mentally distressed persons bestow good leadership skills?
Dr. Ghaemi says yes – especially in times of war or social oppression. “Depression makes leaders more realistic and empathetic,” whereas non-depressed people, while they make great leaders in normal times, may be held back in times of crisis by what psychologists call “positive illusion,” a mildly high self-regard or a “slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them.”
Ghaemi suggests that this connection can be explained by the depressive realism hypothesis. This theory argues that “[depressed people] are depressed because they see reality more clearly than other people do.” This may explain why one study showed that persons with a history of depressive symptoms usually score higher on tests for standard measures of empathy than a non-depressed cohort of college students. “This was the case even when patients were not currently depressed but had experienced depression in the past,” Ghaemi writes. “Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view.”
For example, social leaders like Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who both are known for their overwhelming empathy in leadership, also battled depression. King had made at least two suicide attempts in his youth. As he became a social icon in the 1950s and ‘60s, his colleagues noticed periods of underlying psychological distress that Ghaemi later described to be “clinical depression.”
However, King’s depression may have been the key to his development of a radically empathetic strategy to achieving social change. He often taught his followers to approach their oppressors as psychiatrists approach their patients. They were suffering from racism, which King described as a psychiatric disease that should be treated using nonviolent methods – similar to the treatment tactics of a psychiatrist. This is one of the many examples of a leader using empathy in creative ways that can drive a population through troubled waters.
In addition to higher levels of empathy and realism, some professionals believe that the effects of treating depression with psychotherapy may also bestow benefits that non-depressed people often don’t access: self-knowledge. In her Healthy Minds blog, Dr. Gina Newsome Duncan, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Georgia Health Sciences University, believes one crucial characteristic of mental health involves knowing oneself and being self-aware. She often tells her depressed or anxious patients that “they are in a position to be some of the most mentally healthy people around, because their illness has forced them to grapple with unhealthy patterns and learn new skills to cope with the stresses of everyday life.” This shows the importance of seeking professional help when one is suffering psychologically. It can save a life.
Though these qualities may give depression an upside, I don’t want to misrepresent the suffering and pain that those with depression experience. If left untreated, depression can put a person on a slippery slope. “Suicidal thoughts occur in about half of clinical depressive episodes,” writes Ghaemi. Ten percent of people with depression take their own lives. “The benefits of depression come at a painful, if not deadly price.”