Thursday, August 25, 2011

A First-Rate Madness - Nassir Ghaemi

Title: A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Link Between Leadership and Mental Illness
Author: Nassir Ghaemi
Hardcover: 340 pages
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Published Date: August 4, 2011
FTC: received for TLC book tour

Let me start by saying that this was a fabulously interesting read. I have not read a book where I flopped so much from "I totally agree" to "ummm really?"  Go read this now.  I need to discuss!!

The synopsis:

An investigation into the surprisingly deep correlation between mental illness and successful leadership, as seen through some of history’s greatest politicians, generals, and business people.

My thoughts:

The above synopsis was much much longer so I shortened it to the first paragraph.  Please head over to TLC book tours to read the whole synopsis should you want.  Basically this book comes down to the idea that mental illnesses, such as manic depression, bi-polar disorder, and others may in fact have some benefits for leaders during times of crisis.

The best way for me to break this all down is how he did with his chapter headings.  Part One-Four goes over the four ways mental illnesses can be beneficial: they provide CREATIVITY, REALISM, EMPATHY, and RESILIENCE.  I capitalized those because I totally agree with Dr Ghaemi.

[ I remember taking an anthropology class in college and finding out there are traits that, on the surface seem debilitating, but in reality are meant for specific purposes.  For instance, color blindness may seem like a debilitating trait, but they are wonderful for seeing through jungle settings - i.e. camouflage isn't effective on them.  The military used to (or still does) hire them for that purpose.   Same goes for blue eyes - they are better equipped for seeing images on a monochromatic setting - such as a large swath of ice/snow and sky. Ok.  Moving on.]

Here's the basic first four chapter examples:

Creativity - General Sherman (Civil War), Ted Turner (TV mogul)
Realism - Winston Churchill (WWII), Abraham Lincoln (Civil War)
Empathy - Mahatma Gandhi (India Independence), Martin Luther King, Jr (American Civil Rights)
Resilience - Franklin Roosevelt (Great Depression/WW2), John F. Kennedy (Cuban Missile Crisis)

I loved loved reading these chapters.  Perhaps it's because of my history major background, but I adored this perspective. In the Epilogue, Dr Ghaemi states, "The general approach I take in this book might be called psychological history..."  I think that's a fabulous statement.  Looking at the above leaders and their psychological well-being (or not), I found this book to be intensely interesting.

However, my history teachers also told me to never take a history book as fact: see who's writing, find out if they have an agenda, what their perspective is, and always be aware of stats (ok that last part came from my statistics class - finding out that stats can always be manipulated.)

Which isn't saying that Dr Ghaemi has any nefarious plans with this book.  In fact, a lot of the times when I went I thought "well, I totally don't agree with that" - he usually followed up in a page or two a rebuttal to my thoughts.  For instance, stating that Dr King was depressed and thought about death a lot proved mental illness - well, I sort of laughed because, well of course...death threats...he was assassinated!!  But in the Epilogue Dr Ghaemi states, "King was not depressed because he 'had' the illness of depression, this colleague remarked: he was depressed because of the extreme stress of living with the danger of death daily. This may be, or it could be that he had the disease of depression, or both. This problem can't be easily dismissed: it is a profound dilemma that has exasperated philosophers for at least three centuries..." (pg 269). 

My eye-brow raising happened again with the chapter on JFK.  Do you all realize how much drugs the man was on - for health problems AND drug abuse?  Very interesting.  But then it didn't fit into Dr Ghaemi's neat explanation...which came to the interesting chapter on TREATMENT.  This chapter focused on how dangers leaders can become when treated with or abusing drugs - i.e. early JFK and Hitler.  O yeah.  The Hitler section is fascinating.

The only weak link I really find with this book is the last section - MENTAL HEALTH.  While I totally see how mental illness can (sometimes in certain circumstances) have benefits for leaders in power.  I can also see how sometimes it is dangerous for leaders in power to have mental illness (especially when abusing drugs at the same time).  What I don't completely follow is his explanation that mentally healthy leaders can be a bad choice during times of crisis - i.e. Tony Blair and George W. Bush.  I think this can be a dangerous ground to tread - not because the said leaders are alive and still very controversial - but because there are such a plethora of leaders.  Are ALL mentally sane leaders horrible during times of crisis?  Are ALL mentally ill leaders perfect during crisis times?  God forbid, what would have happened if after 9/11 we got a Hitler-esque mentally ill leader rather than a Bush?  I think I'd rather compare JFK's Vietnam involvement with Bush's invasions rather than compare it to the Cuba Missile Crisis.  And what if Bay of Pigs' JFK had his finger on the trigger during the Cuban Missile Crisis? You'll have to read the book to see what I mean.

Which comes to my conclusion: what a fabulous thought-provoking awesome book this is.  Please pick this up and read it and then comment so that I can discuss this book.  I am making my husband read it so that I can blab about it with someone.  It makes me think of what is mental health? What is mental illness?  Why do we have such a stigma attached to the term mentally ill?  Should we call it something else? Why don't I like thinking I'm a homoclite? Again, you'll have to read the book.

About Dr. Nassir Ghaemi

Dr. Nassir Ghaemi is a professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine and the director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.  He trained in psychiatry at, and also serves on the faculty of, Harvard University’s Medical School, and has degrees in history, philosophy and public health.

Visit Dr. Ghaemi at his website. Read his blog Mood Swings and Free Associations.


Nassir’s Tour Stops

Tuesday, August 23rd: Justice Jennifer
Wednesday, August 24th: Amusing Reviews
Thursday, August 25th: A Library of My Own
Friday, August 26th: Chunky Monkey
Monday, August 29th: What Would the Founders Think?
Tuesday, August 30th: Lit Endeavors
Wednesday, September 7th: A Bookish Affair
Thursday, September 8th: The Left Coaster
Tuesday, September 13th: Deep Muck Big Rake
Thursday, September 15th: Everyone Needs Therapy
Tuesday, September 20th: Cogitamus and LitBrit
Friday, September 23rd: Whiskey Fire
Wednesday, September 28th: The Abraham Lincoln Blog
Date TBD: They Gave Us a Republic

Also reviewed:

NY Observer
Psychology Today

Watch Dr Ghaemi on The Colbert Report

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