Mental illness is a subject regularly in the news in Queensland. We often listen with horror to the stories about famous people in the news who are battling with mental health, and as recently as last Saturday the presenter on ABC’s All in the Mind asserted that there is a purely biological cause for mental illness - “An inflammatory story: Depression and immunity”. So today, my guest post is by my colleague in Massachusetts, Ken Girard, who shares some insights on high-achievers, spirituality and the issue of mental health.
Greatness: Mental illness or something else?
I came across a review by Alice Gregory (“Men who were good in a crisis – because of mental illness”) on Boston.com of a new book – a book that purports to explain great leadership qualities in terms of madness.
A FIRST-RATE MADNESS: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness by Dr. Nassir Ghaemi examines the lives of eight great world-leaders (Lincoln, Churchill, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and JFK are included) and seeks to show that in each case these individuals suffered from mental disorders – mental illnesses – which Dr. Ghaemi’s research has led him to believe was the cause of their greatness.
Ms. Gregory writes: “The mutual constitution of success and suffering – and its more exaggerated analogue, genius and insanity – is a concept we’ve maintained for centuries. Usually we think of the relationship in terms of artistry – melancholy poets and brooding painters – but what if mental illness informs good leadership qualities, too? What if our contemporary political landscape has been shaped by madmen?”
Dr. Ghaemi’s thesis is quoted as:
“The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal; the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy.’’
Not having read the book, I can only rely on the reviews that I’ve seen – reviews that are consistent in their description. If indeed this is Dr. Ghaemi’s position, it seems to me that he has perhaps left an important consideration out of his conclusions. A consideration that might easily be overlooked if the hypothesis is only viewed from a physical/chemical organic model.
Inspiration and insight – both of which are inherently spiritual.
I recall that in my career as a composer and pianist, many people – the general listening public as well as some colleagues – accepted the “romantic” notion that to be creative one had to have mental abnormalities or at least eccentricities (one of the areas that Ghaemi’s book discusses).
I didn’t accept it then and I don’t accept it now. Creativity and aberrations don’t go hand-in-hand. Because an individual may have to deal with mental struggles doesn’t necessarily indicate mental imbalance. It’s often through spiritually striving to overcome those hurdles that deeper insights, clearer understanding, and right and progressive actions take place.
Isn’t it time that we recognize how spiritually-motivated thought can and does bring about positive results – results that not only are important in decision-making, but in every aspect of our lives, including our health and well-being?