Adrienne Harry

The stigma of depression follows politicians to the polls, says a new study conducted by the Munk School’s Peter Loewen and Ludovic Rheault. In a forthcoming publication, they find that voters are less likely to vote for candidates who have been diagnosed with depression than those who have a physical condition, like high blood pressure or cancer. The authors found this to be true in both the United States and Canada, suggesting that depression stigma among voters isn’t specific to one nation or political climate.

“It can be difficult to measure depression stigma in the workplace because hiring practices and judgements are typically private,” says Loewen, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and Department of Political Science. “Looking at politicians give us a unique window into how prevalent depression stigma can be and how our attitude towards mental illness affects our decisions.”

In the study, participants were asked to read short, detailed biographies of hypothetical politicians and then decide which candidate was most likely to receive their vote. The results showed that candidates with depression roughly 10 percentage point disadvantage compared to candidates with physical illnesses.

Depression affects more than 300 million people worldwide, including famous political leaders such as former U.S. presidents Abraham Lincoln and Calvin Coolidge, and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  The paper suggests that the very nature of a politician’s environment may increase the risk of depressive episodes. “Politicians are routinely exposed to conflict and long work hours and are often called to make critical decisions under stress. Their work performance is also subject to a higher degree of public scrutiny,” says Loewen. “For many of them, depression is a reality of their day-to-day lives.”

But why, when workplace stress can also exacerbate physical conditions like hypertension, is depression punished more severely at the polls? The study suggests that voters viewed depression, more than other factors like physical illness or lack of political experience, as having a negative impact on a candidate’s character and preparedness. “Voters view politicians with depression as less suitable for office. Unfortunately, the result of this is that those who suffer from mental illnesses in politics must do so in private, rather than in public,” says Loewen. “This has important consequences for how we debate mental health issues, and it probably limits the ability of legislators to deal with them most effectively.”

February 11, 2019

Read more about this research in the Globe and Mail