One of an elected officials primary focuses is keeping up appearances. Half of their job is maintaining an image that the public finds pleasing. They shake hands, kiss babies, make appearances at events and do a lot of smiling, and it is indeed appealing. But what the public does not see is that this routine of keeping up appearances can cause stress. This is not because public officials are secretly bad people. It is because they are normal people who have flaws and can become exhausted with always trying to cover them up.
All elected officials are acutely conscious of their public image. Every time they do something and any member of the public is around to see it, they have to think about how what they are doing would be represented to their voting public. Even the most moral of people can fall into bad circumstances in this role, even if it is merely due to an event being misinterpreted and misrepresented. This leads an elected official to scrutinizing their own behavior constantly.
Even to the sturdiest politician, this constant dance with public image can become stressful. Anything about them that can end up in the media has the potential to be twisted and misconstrued, and it can lead to a state of paranoia for the politician. The natural human response to this is to express some of their stress, but with cameras and news people constantly prying, releasing stress can be impossible at times.
The unfortunate thing about this predicament is that it often leads to a purging or binging of bad behavior on the elected official’s part. It is frequently the case that one can only keep their imperfections bottled in for so long before they come out with a vengeance. This is why we so frequently see politicians acting out with incredibly bad behavior, and we think to ourselves that if anyone should know better, it is them. But before you judge a politician, consider the expectations on their shoulders and ask yourself if the politicians you see in the media making mistakes are unhealthy or just human.
One of our unspoken but always present criteria for an elected official is good mental health. This is criteria we expect of any working professional, but perhaps none more so than those we elect to public office. Elected officials are responsible in many ways for the well being and quality of life of the people in their jurisdiction. People elect public officials trusting that they will represent their interests in an intelligent, sound way. Voters would recoil from a candidate who demonstrated mental health problems.
This is a fair requirement. An elected official who is not mentally healthy would not be capable of making sound decisions that represent the public’s best interest. Anyone who is mentally unhealthy struggles to make good decisions. Being mentally unhealthy means that you do not perceive things correctly. You interpret things in an unrealistic way that is not based in reality but is based in your own unhealthy thought patterns. It is not too much to require that our elected leaders have good mental health for sound decision making.
Having said this, we also need to remember to be reasonable in what we expect from elected leaders. Some people forget that elected officials are still human and hold them to a standard of perfection that is unattainable for anyone. This is not a healthy or reasonable standard to place on a person.
It is important that we define a fair standard of mental health for our public officials. We cannot elect people who are unstable or in danger of poor decision making. Yet we also cannot expect sheer perfection from our elected leaders. We must find a reasonable compromise. It is true that an elected official should have a very strong history of mental health and should be held accountable for evidence that suggests otherwise. But an elected official also deserves privacy and should not have every element of their personal lives scrutinized. There is a point where defining mental health standards becomes very subjective and is unreasonable to apply to an elected official of any kind.
There are many factors that contribute to addictive behavior, ranging from genetics to psychology to environment. It has been noted that high profile individuals, such as government officials, are more prone to addictive behavior than other groups of people. This is due to the stresses of high profile positions and the neurological make-up of bold, successful people.
The performance pressure put on high profile individuals can be astronomical. The higher the position is, the heavier the weight on the individual’s shoulders can be. Certain personality types are better equipped to deal with stress than others, but many working professionals reach their limit with stress and do not know how to cope past a certain point. This is often when individuals turn to drugs or alcohol to alleviate stress. Substance abuse as a maladaptive coping mechanism is very common through out all types of addiction, but hits this particular group of people very hard. When the substance abuse turns to dependency, the addict can seldom find their way out of addiction without professional intervention.
When approaching addiction as a neurological disease, we find that the brain actually rewires itself to initially enjoy a substance and eventually depend on the substance when it is overused. Neuroscientists have discovered a link between risk taking personalities and addictive behavior, proving that certain chemical make-ups are more prone to the neurological disease of addiction. High profile persons fall into the category of risk takers, which can be observed in the choices they make that keep them in a position of power. Dopamine is the brain chemical associated with pleasure, and risk taking persons have largely been found to have inhibited dopamine production in their brains, causing them to seek more extreme pleasures and stimulations, such as risky financial ventures or experimentation with substances. This does not change the fact that substance addiction is agreeably the unhealthy expression of this neurological quality.
People don’t often associate public office with addiction, but it happens more often than the public realizes. With the widespread media attention that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has received, the voting public is becoming more aware that past and present government leaders are just as capable of misusing substances as anyone else.
The fact of the matter is, elected officials are simply people, and people of all demographics struggle with addiction. In fact, studies have shown that people in positions of power can be even more prone to addiction than other groups of people.
This is not necessarily a recent phenomenon. Political figures such as former Washington D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who was charged with cocaine and marijuana possession in the early 1990’s, have been making headlines for decades. It is suspected that similar stories could have been found through out history and are only falling under scrutiny now that we have a global media.
Often, a person will have addictive tendencies before they enter public office, and may have even struggled with addiction privately in the past. But serving as a government leader can be stressful and taxing, which are the circumstances that spawn addiction binges, and suddenly their problem is the business of their entire populous.
Regardless of whether or not a person who struggles with addiction should remain in public office, it is certain that they should have access to high quality addiction treatment in order to regain their lives.