Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Naive you, you thought Congress had unceremoniously dumped this relic years ago.
Sadly, when it comes to mental health issues among the purported Washington elite, the policy is alive and well. And the American public is complicit.
Our politicians, regardless of political allegiance, hurl mental health insults at each other. The Republican Party, in particular, is unsparing in its vitriol. GOP standard-bearer Donald Trump and Jeb Bush disparage each other as mentally unfit. President Obama characterizes the political opposition as crazy.
A political journalist and mental health consumer, I straddle both of these worlds. Considering a quarter of the American population has a diagnosable mental health issue, the rhetoric is tasteless at best. But in today’s polarized political environment, impugning someone’s mental fitness is a calculated political strategy. In 2014, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gleefully boasted about his campaign’s plans to debase Ashley Judd and her mental health struggles.
America prides itself on its diversity; our elected officials reflect our inclusiveness. President Obama is the country’s first African-American president; Hillary Clinton is the prohibitive favorite to replace him. In the Senate, Barney Frank has been a LGBT linchpin. There are prominent Jews, Latinos, and cultural or religious minorities in high-ranking Cabinet positions. As a mental health advocate, our community is earnestly awaiting our political champion. Who is going to be the first politician to boldly proclaim, “Yes, I have battled mental health issues and am more resilient because of it”?
Without a political figurehead, mental health fades in and out of national consciousness. It is pushed to the forefront when a mass shooting rocks America. As Americans ponder weighty topics such as Kim Kardashian’s chest, mental health fades into oblivion. Rep. Tim Murphy has been a relentless advocate, and, for that, the mental health community is indebted. But we need our political representative — a politician who has survived anxiety’s crushing blows or depression’s blue tidal wave. Someone who can discredit McConnell, Trump, and yes, President Obama’s, stereotypes.
Here’s the irony, or hypocrisy: Politicians chafe at any personal whiff of mental health frailties. Concerned about electoral vulnerability, politicians fear an avalanche of unwanted attention with any mental health admission. In reality, do you believe that politicians are somehow impervious to anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder? Of course not. Imagine that you are a a Congressional representative. As you rally a skeptical public, your opponent scrutinizes your public and private life.
Seizing on a past misstatement, an unflattering image of you appears on the nightly news. The tagline: from power broker to punching bag. You smolder as you rebut the latest story couched in half-truths and anonymous sources. Welcome to the latest firestorm. In this cauldron, I suspect countless politicians are mental health consumers. Yet the mental health community waits with bated breath for one national politician to acknowledge his personal struggles.
Politicians concerned about public perception are loathe to acknowledge any vulnerabilities, let alone something as misunderstood as mental health. Their obstinance perpetuates the “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality and unwittingly condones colleagues’ insensitive comments. In the clubby political world, it is time to out mental health shaming.