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Bravery in the face of mental illness

  • Jeremy Paxman
  • 22 Jan 08, 06:29 PM

pax203x100.jpgI know we're supposed not to be partisan, or to pass judgement on those we interview.

But I have to say that of all the many politicians it has been my (occasionally painful) duty to interview over the years, Mr Bondevik comes pretty near the top. ( Watch it here.)

It's so rare to find man talking with such frankness and courage about such a charged and sensitive subject.

For some reason, mental ill-health retains an aura, which seems at times to make it almost impossible to talk about it sensibly. Quite why this should be, when so many of us are going to suffer from depression or other illnesses, I don't know.

Enlightened voters

I suspect it's because we're frightened of it ourselves. How much better it would be if we could all treat it as we treat physical conditions, like 'flu or cancer or a broken arm.

Mr Bondevik's honesty in putting his cards on the table and telling the people of Norway what was going on in his mind and in his life is admirable. But the reaction of Norwegian voters is just as impressive.

They voted him back into office. If I was being glum, I'd say that it would never happen here because the party leader would find himself the victim of lots of headlines about “Voting for a Loony”.

But don't tell me there's any reason we should be less enlightened than the Norwegians.


There are many organisations that provide help to those that suffer from mental illness. The following is a seleciton of some of them.

Stand to Reason
Mental Health

Comments  Post your comment


I think it is highly probable that we ARE less enlightnened than Norway.
I can only guess that our society is stale as its vested interest have not been overturned by conquest for a very long time. A glance at the degree to which government is in bed with money, booze and power tells you Westminster turkeys will never vote for radical Christmas.
We need conquering.

  • 2.
  • At 07:56 PM on 22 Jan 2008,
  • Nick Thornsby wrote:

Jeremy, I absolutely agree with you. It was nice to hear a politician of a high status talking frankly. We get the odd maverick straight talking MP over here, but it is rare to get a frank and open senior politician. Credit to the Norweigan voters for voting with their heads, not the influence of hysterical media, some forms of which have far too much influence over here. You don't have to be pessimistic to think that this wouldn't happen in Britain; if you were feeling the most optimistic you have ever felt, you still couldn't predict that a PM who has to leave office to recover from mental health problems would be voted back, he almost certainly wouldn't. That is a very sad fact.

I found last night's interview incredibly moving. If a person breaks their bones, they go to an orthopaedic surgeon, if they have something wrong with their eyes, they go to an opthalmic surgeon, yet if there's anything wrong with their mind, people still recoil in horror in the UK at the thought of a psychiatrist trying to fix their mind. By putting the former Norwegian PM on Newsnight, many people who had or do suffer from depression will be given hope, and maybe those who are scared of anyone with mental illness, will be shown that it is curable and not a hindrance to life. Perhaps it was because of Bondevik's honesty that it struck a chord with so many people which made the Norwegians vote him back in. I also wonder if there is a politician in the UK who would be as open and honest if he/she did suffer from any form of mental illness. Perhaps not.

  • 4.
  • At 09:36 PM on 22 Jan 2008,
  • Mike Snow wrote:

As man who's suffered a mental breakdown and suffered the real life stigma associated with mental illness, I can only applaud the Norwegian voters who voted thier prime minister back into office after his depressive episode.
I've lost my career due to my breakdown and the fearful refusal of most employers to hire anyone who's suffered mental troubles. The mentally ill somehow doesn't fit into most peoples perception of society, we are the nutters, the walking nightmares, and wholly unpredictable and unreliable.
More power to the Norwegians.

  • 5.
  • At 12:06 AM on 23 Jan 2008,
  • Tim Clarke wrote:

Similar to Mike Snow @ 9:36pm I have also lost my career because of mental illness. At twenty-seven I was a top 10% earner with a good career ahead of me when circumstances forced my depression to catch up on me. Being a part of the 20% of people with depression who cannot be successfully medicated I was told by my employers (whom I would just love to name and shame) that they have a policy of not taking back staff who were still unwell. I lost my career, my home and everyone I knew. Now I'm thirty-one on the scrapheap of life, a burden to the state, with no future and no hope, stigmatised by both politicians and society. There are many hidden injustices in this country we simply don't wish to discuss. Thankfully I'm past the "chip on my shoulder" but it never gets any less upsetting to talk about. I wont stop though because someone needs to.

Thank you though Jeremy for a great interview.

To the executive from the mental health charity thinking twice about hiring someone with 'gaps in their CV', what exactly are employers afraid of? The worst that could happen is that you've been in gaol, and there are easy ways of cross-referencing that. That you won the lottery and didn't need to work? That you've taken time out to raise children? Or that you have suffered depression? The last must be the reason having discounted the alternatives.

So what is so scary about mental illness? Given that mental health problems affect 1 in 4 people over their lifetime, employers need to get real. There are thousands of people in this country who are being paid not to work by the State because employers are too ignorant to show some leadership and break the taboos surrounding mental illness. Who knows what talent is going to waste because of some myth that mental illness is incurable and that people who have had periods of mental illness are somehow beyond the pale? In some ways it would have been better to have committed a crime, because at least there are schemes to get jail-birds back into jobs.

In response to Barrie Singleton's post, Stand to Reason invited Mr Bondevik to come to London to speak at Westminster to an audience of MPs and Lords because we think it is an outrage that at least one in four of us are excluded from standing as an MP. Technically under archaic common law that derives from the reign of Elizabeth I, someone like Mr Bondevik could be prevented from standing for Parliament. Who knows how many people have been discouraged from becoming an MP for fear of being “outed”? Just last year section 141 of the mental health act - whereby MPs can be automatically removed from the House after six months illness in clear breach of the Human Rights Act - was considered and then retained by Parliament.

Similar restrictions based on a knee-jerk reaction to mental illness, restrict company directors – both public and private; partners; magistrates; jurors; and insolvency practitioners, which do not apply to people with physical disabilities. Stand to Reason intends to campaign vigorously to change the law. If more MPs felt able to disclose their experience of mental illness too, without fear of the electorate or that their careers in politics would hit the buffers, there is a fair chance that mental health would move up the political agenda. Mr Bondevik made it a priority when he returned to power.

"For some reason, mental ill-health retains an aura, which seems at times to make it almost impossible to talk about it sensibly."
Jeremy is right, this is certainly the case.

I´m part of a new online discussion forum called the Mental Health Forum and we aim to be the friendliest place on the web to meet and discuss anything related to mental health. Evertone is welcome to participate.

We hope this initiative will be of help in breaking down the stigma associated with mental health problems.

  • 9.
  • At 11:55 AM on 23 Jan 2008,
  • Peter wrote:

A worthy addition to further the understanding of this issue, along with such as Stephen Fry’s' recent piece. It varies by individual, extent, duration and frequency I know, but I liken depression to the lifecycle of a butterfly, with all the fragility that infers. At some point you soften and are vulnerable, then you retreat and create a shell whilst the healing takes place (I find the only thing to do is to stop trying to do anything that matters, and frankly find it hard to even attempt anything that doesn't), let it pass and eventually emerge a bit stronger. Now what about my abilities during this period? Ignoring the potentially deleterious effect on one's relationship with a caring and understanding family by essentially being in a 'mood', when it comes to the responsibilities to one's job it can of course matter more. Simplistically, there is one's ability to make decisions at all, and if/when one does to make the right... er... best... er... 'good' ones. I'd have to say that I'm not 100% tip-on-top when suffering from depression. But then that might be a lot better than those decisions made by those in positions of power who are often drunk... or psychotic. Or plain dumber than a box of rocks. At least, in a democracy, they are usually surrounded by suitable checks and balances in the form of senior colleagues. It is my subjective observation that many depressives are often those, through choice or circumstance, who are in professions (often creative) where they are very much alone with their burdens, which can be more draining. Hence, and especially when income depends on it, absenting oneself from work can be hard. Gotta love a salary, employee rights and a pension! At least when one is depressed you tend to retain a great deal of sensitivity, though some may say too much. But being rash is unlikely. However, when it comes to the often but not always associated trait of being manic, that can be more of a concern. I think the worst I have come up with was buying a few score domain names 'in case they became useful one day'. Or giving my best speech ever, even if the bride's mother was mortally offended. However, that's a bit different to telling the guy in charge of the next country over to stick it where the oil reserves don't shine. The key is of course the people you have around you, and the systems in place. Ideally that means having adequate cover. Plus having and thus taking a bit of time to consider what is going on, weigh the situation up, and move as a team to a majority conclusion. In this era of 24/7 news, sound-bite media and the consequential knee-jerk politics practiced by those who have only style and presentation over statespersonship and substance, that is hard to imagine taking place with public awareness of an illness, or without all the negatives in terms of critique and hounding described above. Hence we end up with the seemingly perfect porcelain figurines of today. So one wonders if they all are so immune, and how well they might cope under pressure without cracking if they have not been really tested at every level, even from within. You don't get to a position of power with a handicap, especially in politics, without being pretty tough and/or well supported. But what is worrying is the almost inevitable need to conceal and deal with a depressive episode if you are in a public position, rather than dealing with it in the manner so admirably demonstrated by the Norwegian PM and tolerated by his nation. So do we in the UK have now who we deserve? A Churchill with his Black Dog? Or a bunch of ratings obsessed nobodies and their poodles, installed by a hype machine that demands idealistic perfection? I know which I’d prefer, and the evidence of what actually is these days getting done vs. spun would seems to bear out my view. Give me a honest, if flawed giant over an airbrushed pygmy any day. They can often be more interesting, too.

ps: Excuse any duplicates. Having written such a piece,it can be... frustrating.. to see an Error 502 keep popping quite so often on attempting to post. I'm sure there is a worthy piece on how technology is having a less than calming effect on our lives.

  • 10.
  • At 03:06 PM on 23 Jan 2008,
  • Adrienne wrote:


Note the second paragraph.

Trying to reverse what is, at root, a debilitating developed world political 'malaise' (dysgenic and differential fertility) which has clear long term economic and social consequences, is a Herculean-Sisyphean, if not impossible, task which is therefore guaranteed to result in political 'helplessness' if one tries to engineer its arrest never mind its reversal.

But is that really what people believe to be depression? We know how to engineer this in lab animals. As a bio-behavioural assay, 'helplessness' paradigms are used to screen and test anti-depressants, but anti-depressants take weeks to take effect, if they have any efficacy at all (controversial but true, and well documented).

Between the 60s and 90s Singapore tried, and failed to come to grips with a demographic dysgenic trend, and it has survived only because of the 'ill-fortune' which befell its neighbouring Tiger Economies at the hands of the hands off 'Chicago Boys', the change to Hong Kong's fortunes, the bogey of Singapore's Muslim neighbours adding an additional impetus, its tiny size etc. Even so, despite its prosperity, the government's eugenics policies elicited resentment, not support from its intelligentsia. Now they've capitulated and try to encourage ALL to have three kids, i.e Muslims and Chinese, bright and not so bright.

Despite appearances, developed world economies are now trapped within an insidious long-term, self-destructive, socio-economic system marked by low indigenous TFRs and high differential fertility requiring a constant influx of people from less skilled nations, ostensibly to compensate for demographic decline but practically undermining social cohesion, which can only exacerbate their problems in the longer term if my, and others' analysis is sound. We will just see more of the same credit/sub-prime crises - aa this system preys/depends on swelling the vulnerable underclass. The longer it goes on, and the longer one operates as part of it, the more one will risk depression.

Given that we have an ageing population which depends on the markets for their pensions etc, and that they can't do much if anything about any of this, expect more depression there too.

There's NOTHING 'mental' about any of this, and that's what more should be wising up to, rather than fanciful notions about more social acceptance or tolerance of 'mental' illness (see earlier NN comments on this over recent months). The ex Norwegian PM should perhaps have had a word with the father of Finland's PM (Tatu Vanhanan) about what lies at the root of many of these woes.

Many are aware of these generating contingencies of 'depression', but the problem is that the contingencies are almost impossible to deal with given that they're now integral to how developed world economies run, and have been running since at least the C20th, and especially mid C20th with the rise in Civil/Human Rights.

The problems are not 'mental', so neither are the solutions. What's been new has been the proliferation of legislation promoting Civil and Human Rights in the last century, and I fear this is the sort of legislation which many readers here will believe that there should be more of, or if not, that it should be better enforced. But what if this is at the root of the increased prevalence rates of these problems? Until the developed world comes to terms with this (and abandons political correctness), and its subtle modus operandi, it can only expect to see the well documented rising levels of crime and other behaviour problems (including unhappiness and depression) continue.

Note - the point being here is more subtle than it may appear at first reading.

CLUNK (to the cognoscenti ;-)

  • 11.
  • At 07:22 PM on 23 Jan 2008,
  • Seer wrote:

The reason people are wary of mental health issues is because it can effect judgement. A leader whose judgement he is unable to control can't possibly be allowed into a position of power. That would be absurd. We still know far to little about the human mind that the million+ things that can go wrong and change a person - for better or for worse - to afford to take risks. It's sad and depressing when people respected develop something like this, but simply removing them from office is better then risking the lives of millions of people with possibly impaired judgement.

I was a GP and had my first episode of major depression in 1986. I am not 'allowed' to say that I suffer(ed) from it; I have to say that I have 'lived experience' of it. Brainmind (mental) dys- or mal-function is much more than an illness.

It is the direct and understandable outcome for thousands of people who are registering the psychotoxic processes and people so abundant in our so-called 'developed'/'first-world' country. Many people with 'common mental health poroblems' are the canary equivalents within working and other environments who are signalling just how poisonous are the many processes we now operate.

Short-termism, 'projectitis',endless party-political interference and the micro-management of aspirational beings into perspirational doings, bad news stories at every turn, huge global agendas that require Governments to act and so forth. But then, I had beter not continue - otherwise people will simply say I'm depressed!

We don't need to have any foreign invasion - we need to invade ourselves and get our country back to some values that have a chance of being nurtured sustainably to right this mess.


  • 13.
  • At 08:09 PM on 23 Jan 2008,
  • Adrienne wrote:

"Mr. Bondevik, a Lutheran minister, promised voters he would increase cash payments to mothers who stayed home to take care of their young children.

He has been unable to fulfill that pledge and is said to have taken that to heart as a personal failure".

Joanathan (#12) says: "Who better than a Prime Minister to point out that people with mental illness can and do recover, carrying on doing challenging work – and that work can be key to keeping us healthy."

Answer: Perhaps those to whom the PM turned for advice/help? Better still, those who have research experience in this area?

Question: Why would a PM's personal experience be of more value in any of these matters?

What you're doing here is looking for celebrity endorsement of a politically motivated campaign (and donations by the look of the website). This practice is already a pernicious part of the problem which depresses many people who don't lobby for their interests because they appreciate that this usually clouds the issue. Lack of public awareness is NOT the problem, but well meaning, but usually misguided, pressure groups often are (and not just here, it's endemic in the helping 'voluntary sector'. Why do these people think that they are better informed? Having suffered from a disorder does not make one an expert in it does it?

  • 14.
  • At 01:17 AM on 24 Jan 2008,
  • P Johnston wrote:

I have been dealing with depression since I was 18, I'm now 26 and have come to accept that I will most likely have this condition for the rest of my life. I have been looking for work now for 18 months with no success, one of the reasons for this I believe is the time spent out of work due to illness.
For a long time I tried to deal with this illness in the worst possible way, through drink and drugs. To numb the feeling of hopelessness and despair was the only way I could function. The mind can be a terrifying thing and when it turns on itself there is no respite. On 1st August 2007 I stopped drinking and taking drugs and began on a course of medication. To this day I have remained sober. Medication is not in my opinion the anwser but it can help. You have to want to go on with your life. I endure the torments my mind throws at me everyday because I want to live my life. I am capable of working and of being an excellent employee as I have a strong work ethic. It just seems there is alot of stigma attached to mental illness. People don't want to know, it makes them uncomfortable and is easier to ignore.
I am currently taking the ECDL computer course with learndirect to improve my prospects and show employers I'm motivated to learn. My cv at the moment consists of 5
gcse's and many gaps in employment which is not ideal. It's hard to make people understand that problems in the past do not have to mean problems in the future. I'm desperate to get on with my life but as well as dealing with my illness I have to deal with other people's reactions against it.
Depression can affect anyone!
It's about time that attitudes in this country toward mental illness changed.

  • 15.
  • At 10:28 AM on 24 Jan 2008,
  • Jenny Gabrielsen wrote:

It is flattering to read that you think Nowegians are enlightened.

But, before you take mr Bondevik's re-election as a sign of how enlightened Norwegians are, you might want to consider that Bondevik's party is not particularly enlightnened! The Christian People's Party is against the gay partnership law and against a woman's right to choose.

  • 16.
  • At 08:10 PM on 24 Jan 2008,
  • Pat Cull wrote:

There is a group of people who suffer from severe and enduring mental illness who are forgoten. Some 30 -40 years ago the treatment available was somewhat drastic in the side effects of the medication they required. This left them often unable to work on a continuum. Employers are in business to make money, and fluctuating conditions, where the patient may be able to work for a short spell and then have to take time out for health reasons makes it difficult for the employer.
It is also difficult for the patient, as their illness fluctuates, and if they take employment their Benefits are stopped, and this can make them more ill. It is then a great struggle to get back onto their Benefits. Employers are often thus reluctant to employ them, and can only be discredited by the Disability Discrimination Act, should the applicant at the time of application be in a fit condition to do the job. these unfortunate people are in a catch 22. Added to which the Government has closed many of the sheltered workshops, and those which were run on a voluntary basis are hard pressed to find the money to continue their good rehabilitative work. In any case patients are people, and what one is capable of, another is not.
I think it is good that Jeremy Paxman held that interview. Anything that btings to the notice of the public that people with severe and enduring mental illness are individuals with individual needs is helpful.

  • 17.
  • At 08:13 PM on 24 Jan 2008,
  • Deborah King wrote:

As a lawyer with personal experience of mental ill health I feel it is very important for MPs to talk about mental illness. The London Development Agency reports that the current employment rate for mental health service users in London is 16%. This is principally caused by the stigma attached to mental ill health. Some employers and employees have a fear of mental illness which can be like something from the Middle Ages. People have rights under the Disability Discrimination Act to have reasonable adjustments (changes to their work to help them stay in employment) made for them by their employer and they can contact advice agencies or Mind for more information.

  • 18.
  • At 01:16 AM on 25 Jan 2008,
  • M. Reynolds wrote:

This interview was quite rivetting. Congratulations to those responsible for the decision to feature the subject on Newsnight, to Jeremy Paxman for skillfull questioning, and to Kjell Magne Bondevik for his clear account of his experiences and demonstrable passion in promoting wider knowledge of the symptoms and consequences of mental ill health. A quality broadcast - it will remain with me.

First of all to Paxman: you do not need to slow down the pace of your speech because you are talking to a second language speaker - many of them understand you fully although may not always have native-like command of English. The understanding of that is what you don't get when you only know your mother tongue.

And to the point, Adrienne was quite informed on the situation in Nordic countries in her comment sent at 08:35 PM on the 22nd of January (although Sweden and Denmark are partly becoming very multicultural indeed).

I would add that in Norway & Norden in general this would be possible because the societies and their people are much softer than Britain and Brits. In the UK you need to wear a mask of success every time you leave home - fall once and there is no climbing up that cliff.

  • 20.
  • At 08:46 AM on 25 Jan 2008,
  • Martin from Norway wrote:

No one should be ashamed for their mental illness, and not to use the many brilliant minds and good workers who suffers by it would be a costly waste.

I did not vote for Mr Bondevik because of his politics, but I would never use his mental illness against him. Who is not depressed sometime? Especially in dark Norway.

It has to be said that in Norway the voters have little to say on who is going to be the lead canidates. We usually vote for parties, and not for the candidate. But if your lead candidate is an unpopular choice the party will make a bad campaign and loose many votes.

Sane people are often the most dangerous loonies, as everybody should know.

  • 21.
  • At 09:46 AM on 25 Jan 2008,
  • Richard H wrote:

And an unmarried member of Mr Bondevik's government took time off to have a baby. The identity of the father has never been revealed in the papers. Norway is a very tolerant country and one in which it is (too?) easy to take sick leave for depression, fatigue etc.
I cannot see what the lack of immigrants has to do with it. Actually a large proportion of Oslo schools have a majority of "minority" pupils.

  • 22.
  • At 10:06 AM on 25 Jan 2008,
  • Tonni wrote:

One can't equate "all" Norwegians with Magne Bondevik, I know, since I'm a Norwegian. The Norwegians have their fill of hypocrites too (there have been more than one but less than ten very recent examples of hypocritical politicians floating bloated to the surface), as well as of hysterical media. I think the main reason for Bondevik's reacceptance is the Norwegians' inherent acceptance of the honest sinner who repents and of the underdog. Not that Bondevik was ever any sinner as such, just that he made a clean breast of things.

  • 23.
  • At 01:31 PM on 25 Jan 2008,
  • Johan Bjørn Bergheim wrote:

I happened to read theese comments, and the intervju.
It made me very happy. I`m proud to be a Norwegian, and one of the millions, that welcomed our prime minister welcome back on his post.

I`m happy to read that he in this intervju gave many british, that has suffered, a good feeling, that there is hpoe for them, also. If the british can learn something from this.

Johan Bergheim.



  • 24.
  • At 01:51 PM on 25 Jan 2008,
  • Johan Bjørn Bergheim wrote:

I happened to read theese comments, and the intervju.
It made me very happy. I`m proud to be a Norwegian, and one of the millions, that welcomed our prime minister welcome back on his post.

I`m happy to read that he in this intervju gave many british, that has suffered, a good feeling, that there is hpoe for them, also. If the british can learn something from this.

Johan Bergheim.



For me, stigma has probably been as disabling as mental illness itself, if not more so. The awful paradox is that it's only now when I'm in a much more stable 'normal' state that I feel strong enough to be more 'out' about who I am at work. Yet it was when I was vulnerable that I most needed relief from the awful sense of shame which comes when one feels the need to hide. Combating stigma will actually help people's health, in that they may feel more able to seek help when they need it.

Excellent, as said, one in four people will have experience of mental ill health, it has to be discussed.

Stigma may be the most destructive social force on the planet. While people cannot talk about what is happening to them, the experience is driven underground and becomes far more damaging.

Mental ill health is not so different from physical ill health. The brain is just another organ, and can malfunction and heal in just the way other organs can.

Well done!!

  • 27.
  • At 11:57 PM on 28 Jan 2008,
  • Rational thinking wrote:

07:22 PM I disagree with your view that mental illness will automatically impair decision making, and lead to irrational decisions. There are many types of mental illness and your view is bigoted against mentally ill people, and shows a total lack of understanding of what mental illness is. You could just as well say that any person who does not suffer a mental illness should never be PM, as there are many people in prison who have no mental illness.
Is there any evidence Hitler or Stalin suffered from a mental illness? I have not seen it yet. Some would say religion is a irrational insane belief, does that mean anyone who worships any religion should be barred from office.
Mental illness does not mean someone just spends their whole time carrying out totally illogical actions.

It often only affects small sections of their life which have no bearing on their ability to do their work. Neurosis is a mental illness, does that mean anyone with superstition is to insane to be PM.

The argument you will put is that you are rational if you have no mental illness. Well I am sorry there are many people in prison with no mental illness, who make far worse decisions, than I have ever made. What we want is someone who does the right thing, after careful thought. It could be argued it was irrational of Churchill to do the right thing in WW2. Many great people have carried out decisions which do not seem rational. There is evidence Ronald Reagan used horoscopes for some of his policy making. Yet he was not mentally ill. Yet at the same time was he rationalto use horoscopes. What is rational and irrational is not as cold and simple as you might want to say. Rationality is not always right. And the non mentally ill can often be far more irrational than the mentally ill. If you are 100% rational then well done, but I doubt you are. I suffer from mental illness and I cannot see many mental illnesses that would rule anyone out of being PM. Being mentally does not mean you would decide to nuke countries. It is very hurtful to suggest such a notion to very large section of the population. You may claim, well what happens if he falls ill, well you could use that excuse to say anyone with any health defect should never be PM.

Your idea of a perfect specimen of physical and mental perfection may not always necessarily be the appropriate individual to run a country, as they may not be able to relate to the general population.

By the way I am not arguing for people who have paranoid delusions about jews running the world, or for people who regard themself as some sort of superman to be PM, but some non mentally ill people like that too, like Hitler did who to the best of my knowledge was never classified as mentally ill even though he killed many mentally people. And remember he even had the cheek to claim he was doing it for their own benefit.

Hello, of course I came to visit your site and thanks for letting me know about it.
I just read this post and wanted to say it is full of number one resources. Some I am familiar with. For those who don’t know these other sites they are in for a treat as there is a lot to learn there.

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