Political Mud-Slinging, Stigma-Style: Take the Stigmafree Pledge Instead

Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee needs to take NAMI's stigmafree pledge. So does a state legislator in North Dakota.

That's because of statements they both made on a single day. If we want to prevent more of these discriminatory remarks, maybe every public official and candidate for office should take the pledge as well.

On June 26, Governor Huckabee claimed that U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts "apparently needs medication for schizophrenia" after having written the opinion that upheld the Affordable Care Act, while dissenting from the one that bans prohibitions on gay marriages.

NAMI called for an apology on behalf of all individuals and families affected by mental illness, particularly schizophrenia which affects 1% of the American population. We're still waiting.

As a political tactic, Gov. Huckabee exploited the stigma that traditionally has surrounded mental illness in order to attack the competence and credibility of someone with whom he disagrees. Such a remark would never be tolerated about needing chemotherapy for cancer or insulin for diabetes. It represents political "stigma-slinging" at its worst.

It doesn't matter whether a person agrees or disagrees with the Supreme Court or anyone else. It doesn't matter whether a person is a Republican, Democrat or independent. Using mental illness as a metaphor for political gain does a terrible disservice to people with mental health conditions, especially those who take medication on hard-won journeys to recovery.

On the same day as Huckabee's statement, a legislator from North Dakota voiced disagreement with the Supreme Court decision on gay-marriage, mocking it as "a great victory for the mentally ill." His peers condemned the remark.

When it comes to American politics, mud-slinging--the hurling of allegations to see if they'll stick regardless of whether they're true or false--is a long-standing tradition. Unfortunately, the practice sometimes includes using stigma surrounding mental illness to attack the competence of political candidates and undermine their credibility in policy debates. It's also a bipartisan tradition.

Perhaps the most notorious case came during the 1964 presidential campaign when a magazine ad based on a survey of psychiatrists attacked Senator Barry Goldwater as mentally unstable. The case led to the American Psychiatric Association's adoption of ethical rules to stop speculative diagnosing.

In 2003, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, criticized the Bush administration's foreign policy and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage declared, "It's clear that Mr. Gingrich is off his meds and out of therapy."

Let's hope that political rhetoric this time around reaches a higher standard. A good start indeed would be for candidates at every level to take the stigmafree pledge. It's simple to do and would be a good start for continuing the national conversation about mental health care policy throughout campaigns as they unfold

• Learn about mental health--educate myself and others
• See the person, not the illness--strive to listen, understand and tell my own story
• Take action--spread the word, raise awareness and make a difference

Help spread the word. Please take the pledge with your family and friends and encourage them to contact candidate campaigns through emails, websites and Facebook pages. Ask them to do the same. That's one way to make a difference for the better.

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