Nassir Ghaemi at The Harvard Book Store

Nassir Ghaemi discusses 'A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness' - 9/10/12

Event Attendee #1: Do you have any worries about the implications, the negative implications of your work, and perhaps the undermining of the positive elements of who we consider our leaders [like Dr. King]? It could be very easy to say that [mental illness] is a reason to take them out of leadership.

Nassir Ghaemi: Yeah - that's exactly what I'm trying to oppose in a way. Schizophrenia, for instance, is not an example that I use even though it's a perfectly valid mental illness. It's very well-based scientifically, but there are no great schizophrenic mentally-ill leaders. There are lots and lots of depressed and manic depressive mentally-ill leaders. There aren't many great anti-social ones either, it you want to use that phrase.

So there's something about manic depression that seems especially helpful. I don't think that generalizes necessarily about all mental illness. And I'm also saying that when it's really severe - it's not useful.

There's so much stigma against mental illness. There's so much discrimination against it. People think that if you make any connection, you're demeaning these people - and that's actually one of the messages of this work: these people were not superheroes; they were heroes.

They're not supernatural; they're natural. What makes you a hero is not that you're really a saint, out of this world - Dr. King gave a speech [one of the last speeches of his life]: 'Don't say that Dr. King was a saint - I'm a sinner, just like all the rest of you.'

He wasn't just a sinner. He was depressed.

So, I think once we finally get out of that mindset and realize that our great leaders were actually not 'normal' but [that] they were human; that they had human afflictions - that it's not all bad but actually enhances them in many ways - well, that makes them greater.

Event Attendee #2: Can you talk a bit about about how you selected the leaders? Did you consider examples outside the United States, and were there some that came close to making the cut but just didn't?

Nassir Ghaemi: Yes. I wanted the book to be about the Civil War initially. And then my editor said that this might be a broader thesis. I've gotten a little bit grandiose with this thesis now.  I used to think, 'Well, this explains the Civil War - the greatest leaders were Sherman, who was manic depressive; there was Grant the alcoholic; Lincoln, who was so severely depressed.

When you go to World War 2, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, it was hard for me to find a leader who was not depressed. Statistically, it's far beyond chance and far beyond prevalence in 5-10% of the population - if you take the 20 leaders of those crises, at least half of them are in here.

So, how did I pick them? On the concept of what is a crisis and who was a great leader, I left to the historians. There's enough consensus [at least ending in the Cold War] that people like Churchill, Roosevelt, and King and Ghandi and so on were great leaders, and that's how I left it there. I tried to pick the people that most though were great and then I looked into their psychiatric backgrounds.

There's a saying in Argentina: 'Experience is a comb you get when you're bald'.

[Audience chuckles]

Nassir Ghaemi: I know this now that I've gotten more white hair. Unfortunately, this kind of knowledge is not very applicable to current or recent leaders because people hide the truth. I've had discussions with some physicians who wanted to have more open medical exposure for presidential candidates - including their psychiatric record.

They wanted to have all of their medical records out - some kind of policy that that should be the case. And I think that's the only way [in a society like ours] that we might be able to know the truth ahead of time.

Unfortunately, it's always retrospective, and far retrospective.