After serving nearly five terms in the U.S. Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell appears to have become desperate in plotting his re-election strategy. His campaign aides were secretly recorded recently proposing that actress Ashley Judd should be taken to task for her bouts of depression should she decide to run against the Kentucky Republican next year.
"She's clearly — this sounds extreme — but she is emotionally unbalanced. I mean, it's been documented ... she's suffered some suicidal tendencies. She was hospitalized for 42 days when she had a mental breakdown in the '90s,' said a McConnell aide in February during a meeting at the senator's Louisville campaign headquarters.
The recording was released along with an article posted by Mother Jones magazine last week and, while McConnell's aides are expressing indignation over what they branded "Watergate-era tactics,' the fact remains that they've been caught with their pants down.
To attempt to discredit a person because she has experienced mental illness is not only a cheap campaign tactic, it is an outdated one.
It hearkens back to 1972 when Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern's running mate, U.S. Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri, was asked to leave the ticket after 18 days when it was revealed he had been hospitalized three times for depression.
"If I had to do it over again, I'd have kept him,' said McGovern in 2006. "I didn't know anything about mental illness. Nobody did.'
Ignorance about mental illness continued to be evident on the campaign trail 23 years later when former Secretary of State Colin Powell was vying for the Republican nomination for president. When it was revealed his wife, Alma, battled depression, some of his fellow Republicans cast aspersions on his ability to be the nation's chief executive.
The reaction outraged mental health advocates and professionals, including Suzanne Andriukatis, who, in 1995, was executive director of the Chicago Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
"The implication here was that the man's wife has depression, therefore he's not going to be an adequate president,' said Andriukatis who noted that the stigma against depression would cease if people realized how common it was.
In 1995, Alma Powell was among an estimated 17 million Americans living with clinical depression. In 2012, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that one in five American adults, or 45.6 million people, had suffered from mental illness that year.
"Although mental illness remains a serious public health issue, increasingly we know that people who experience it can be successfully treated and can live full, productive lives,' said agency administrator Pamela S. Hyde.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 20.9 million, or 9.5 percent, of adult Americans suffer from depression and other mood disorders each year.
Thanks to President Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 and the advocacy of such legislators as former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, Americans are finally getting treatment for mental illness commensurate with physical illness.
Kennedy's efforts helped pass the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental-Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act of 2008. Domenici, a Republican from New Mexico who also crusaded for mental health parity during his six terms in the U.S. Senate, retired in January 2009. In 2007, he announced he was suffering from a degenerative brain disease.
In 2007, Kennedy spoke at Elwyn, a nonprofit provider of services for special needs individuals including the mentally ill, at its headquarters in Middletown. He told the audience that he suffers from bipolar disorder, has undergone treatment for cocaine and prescription pain medication abuse and is a recovering alcoholic and addict.
As for McConnell's plan to potentially out Ashley Judd's depression, he is too late. In March Judd talked about her experiences with depression in front of more than 3,000 counselors at the American Counseling Association's national convention in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Mitch McConnell's aides just may have done his potential opponent a favor by making an issue of her depression. They've highlighted an illness with which almost 10 percent of American voters can identify and they've attached it to a possibly formidable candidate who has proven that depression need not negate success in life.