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What If Our Greatest Leaders Have Not Been Great In Spite Of Manic Depression, But Because Of It?

The Honourable Julia Gillard, AC. Chair of Beyond Blue and first female Prime Minister of Australia. 

“Deify and deny: great men cannot be ill, certainly not mentally ill.

But what if they are not only ill; what if they are great, not in spite of manic-depression, but because of it?”


So said Nassir Ghaemi, the director of the mood disorders program and Professor of psychiatry and pharmacology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston in a recent article in The Conversation. 


Winston Churchill, famously borrowed Samuel Johnson’s expression to describe his own depression as ‘the black dog’.


Churchill could be so overwhelmed by depression he would spend days, even weeks, in bed, fatigued and disinterested, unable to concentrate. These dark periods happened multiple times over many decades.


When he wasn’t depressed, Churchill experienced episodes of high energy. Not sleeping until the early morning, working at his books, talking incessantly, thoughts and ideas tumbling out. So much so that then US president, Franklin D Roosevelt, once said of him: “He has a thousand ideas a day, four of which are good.”


This was the life of the man to whom the fate of Britain was entrusted in its darkest hour.

Britain couldn’t afford for Churchill to become depressed and despairing and non-functional for months during the war.


Just as America could not afford the myth of presidential invincibility to be undermined by the revelation FDR spent most of his time in a wheelchair.


In Australia, John Curtin, the 14th Prime Minister of Australia was not only a great war-time leader and reformer, but is now at last publicly also considered a disruptor, a mental health militant, even if he was unwilling to share that aspect of his personal story while he lived.


Curtin’s mental health journey resonates today with the work of beyondblue, particularly when it comes to men’s mental health.


Pressure to conform means too many men still bottle things up, trying to go it alone – as Curtin did – which increases the likelihood of their depression or anxiety going unrecognised and untreated. 

How many of us would be prepared to admit to bosses and colleagues our productivity is slipping because of depression, or that workloads and schedules are contributing to crippling anxiety?

We know that untreated depression increases the risk of suicide and, to some degree, this contributes to the difference in the number of men and women taking their own lives.


But Curtin’s great reforms - which included the protection of Australian industries, the 40-hour working week, the establishment of unemployment allowances, and training and employment for young people - might never have happened had some of Curtin’s own party been successful in 1941 in opposing him becoming prime minister because of his mental health. 


He seemed, they said, to be plagued by complaints and minor illnesses – thought to be nervous in origin – when the political going got tough.


Curtin, they said, worried much about little things; he was afraid of people; he exaggerated difficulties: “He took losses as a personal responsibility and worried himself with an illogical feeling of individual blame.”


It is obvious now, reflecting on the statements of those who knew him personally, that Curtin struggled with his health problems in silence. Understanding what his own colleagues were capable of, you have to think he was right to be concerned.


Imagine the public reaction if it had leaked out that Australia’s wartime leader could be reduced to tears by political sledging as Curtin was when he was accused of sending Australian troops into the slaughterhouse.


When the prime minister would tell his staff he was “not feeling too well today,” they understood that the comment was as much about his mental health as it was his physical.


Like many other of his counterparts, Curtin’s wellbeing suffered from his desperate desire to portray himself as an active, competent war time leader. 


It was stigmatisation by his own party members and colleagues that very nearly robbed Australia of our greatest prime minister.


But would it really be any different today? Would the public be prepared to see a PM who acknowledged issues of the dimensions borne by Curtin continue as the nation’s leader even in peace, let alone in war?


Some might consider it possible. Bob Hawke - Australia’s Prime Minister from 1983 to 1991 - did not reveal his battle with depression until after he had left the PM’s office. Though the Australian public did embrace him even though his past battles with alcohol were well known.But, I would suggest the answer is no. Not yet. We still have a long way to go.


To tell or not to tell is still a question confronting thousands of Australians each day as they balance work responsibilities and the sometimes disabling thoughts and symptoms associated with depression and anxiety.

One in five Australians currently employed has a mental health condition and they bring all aspects of themselves – physical and mental health – to work every day. Most days they will be highly productive, engaged and committed employees. Occasionally they might need time out or some flexibility.


Yet how many of us would be prepared to admit to bosses and colleagues our productivity is slipping because of depression, or that workloads and schedules are contributing to crippling anxiety?

Far easier to explain sickies with a physical illness – a migraine or even the man flu – than admit depression weighed so heavily you couldn’t ditch the doona.


At worst, discussing your mental health issues in the workplace can be a matter of prosperity versus poverty, a productive career contributing to Australia’s economy versus being out of work and out of hope.


The good news is that the situation is improving. More and more people are prepared to talk openly about their mental health, just as they do their physical ailments.


Forty five per cent of Australians are expected to experience some form of mental health condition in their lifetime. Yet it’s not easy to admit to ourselves, then our loved ones, trusted friends or work colleagues that we are struggling.


Untreated depression is one of the most significant risk factors in suicide and in Australia in 2015, there were 3,027 deaths: more than eight a day.Of those 75% were men – that’s six men a day taking their own lives.

This makes suicide the leading cause of death for Australian men under the age of 45, significantly exceeding the national road toll. And men aged 85 and over are the group most likely to take their own lives.


A lot of blokes think it’s weak to admit that they’re going through a tough time.

This myth has been reinforced across generations, sometimes with tragic consequences, but it’s not true.

Anxiety and depression are just like any other medical condition – you need to have an action plan to manage your recovery and get better. And most people do recover.


For the wealth, health and happiness of our nation, for all the families, communities and workplaces in which we live, play and thrive we need people to be informed and engaged.


To do this all men and women – and children – need to be educated about good mental health practices and how to maintain them throughout life.


But this requires a willingness to embrace great social change. It requires macro and micro thinking – each of us individually assessing our own mental health and those we care about and taking action to get the support we need to stay healthy and strong and for organisations, institutions and governments to also embrace this change.


I like to believe John Curtin, in his heart would be gladdened by our greater preparedness today to not only allow people to talk about mental health but to encourage them to do so.

In his famous broadcast announcing that Australia was at war with Japan, Curtin called on all Australians to have courage.


“To the men and women of Australia,” he said, “The call is to you, for your courage, for you physical and mental ability.”


There is still a long way to go and the call is to you – the men and women of Australia – to have courage.


Talking about our mental health and how we are feeling, admitting we might be struggling, or asking a loved one or friend if they are thinking about taking their own live takes courage.


The call is to you.


The above is an edited extract from Julia Gillard’s John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library anniversary lecture. 

Beyond Blue provides information and support to help everyone in Australia achieve their best possible mental health, whatever their age and wherever they live