Depression Still Not Understood

John ArmstrongCounseling

Former U. S. Senator Thomas Eagleton (D.MO) died last Sunday, at the age of 77. Some older readers will recall that it was Tom Eagleton who was placed on the Democratic ticket as a vice presidential running mate to Senator George McGovern at the nominating convention in 1972. Only two weeks after the national party convention nominated Eagleton he was removed from that ticket because of an earlier psychiatric hospitalization for depression that was revealed through the press.

Eagleton was tapped, according the McGovern’s campaign director, the future Colorado senator Gary Hart, because he was “Catholic, urban and an unknown from a border state.” The McGovern campaign knew of Eagleton’s previous hospitalization(s) but felt that they could present Eagleton as a man of vitality and hard work who had been hospitalized because of his aggresive campaigning style that drained him.

What finally brought Eagleton down was intense media questioning brought about through, as is almost always the case, anonymous tips. Eagleton admitted he was “voluntarily hospitalized for nervous exhaustion and depression three times in the previous twelve years.” These depressions generally followed a campaign season and his treatments included counseling, medical treatment and electrical shock therapy, common procedures in those days. Senator McGovern initially stood by Eagleton but as influential newspapers questioned his suitability for the job Thomas Eagleton withdrew from the national ticket. (McGovern, clearly the most politically liberal major national candidate of the 20th century, went on to loose the election in a massive landslide to Richard Nixon.)

Tom Eagleton was re-elected to the U. S. Senate from Missouri in 1974 by a wide margin, showing Missourians trusted him. He was re-elected again six years later. When he finally left politics he practiced law in St. Louis and later helped bring the L. A. Rams football team to the city.

I had to wonder this week how the public would respond today to a national candidate who had been hospitalized for depression? We have made advances in accepting depression as an illness that is treatable and not that uncommon. Dick Cheney remained on the Republican ticket in 2004 even though we knew he had endured a series of pretty major heart issues for some years. But depression is still not understood in the wider society and is often treated in ways that are both unhelpful and lacking in solid medical understanding. Christians can be at their worst when it comes to this issue, often blaming depression on a lack of real faith and trust in God. I would like to think things have improved a great deal since 1972 but I frankly doubt it. Most of my friends who are pastors, and who have admitted their need for counseling and treatment for depression, have not been able to endure for long in conservative churches. The deep-seated misunderstanding and mistrust continues, especially in perfectionist settings. Eagleton’s obituary reminded me of this sad, sad fact. It also made me hope for better times in the future since I believe some progress has been made. For all who have suffered with depression, silently or otherwise, one can only hope that this will soon become the case since public rejection makes it all the harder to deal with this problem, especially when it comes from Christian brothers and sisters who should know both their Bibles, and the pains often associated with living well in a fallen world, much better.