Prof diagnoses Martin Luther King Jr.

Being mentally ill may lead to success, Tufts University School of Medicine psychiatry professor Nassir Ghaemi said.

In front of about 30 faculty and New Haven community members Thursday night, Ghaemi spoke about the link between mental health and political leadership as part of a lecture co-sponsored by the Program for Humanities in Medicine. In times of crisis, Ghaemi said, leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill displayed signs of mental illness and actually performed better than their “more sane” counterparts. Although five audience members said his views appeared counterintuitive at first, most were ultimately convinced by Ghaemi’s anecdotal evidence and the practical applications of his research.

According to Tufts professor Nassir Ghaemi, abnormal people make the best leaders under pressure.
According to Tufts professor Nassir Ghaemi, abnormal people make the best leaders under pressure.

“We tend to equate mental health with goodness,” Ghaemi said. “But history shows that abnormal people are the best leaders when subjected to strong outside pressure.”

Ghaemi’s research involves looking at past leaders whom he suspects suffered from mental illness and seeing how their behavior matches up with contemporary classifications of mental disorders, he said.

Historical leaders, Ghaemi said, offer better documentation for making accurate psychological diagnoses than living ones.

“It isn’t actually a disadvantage for someone to be dead,” Ghaemi said, “The hardest people for me to explain in terms of mental illness are the living ones because there are just too many feelings involved.”

Central to his research is what Ghaemi calls the “inverse law of sanity,” which states that when times are good, a mentally healthy person succeeds as normal, but when conditions are bad it is the mentally ill person who functions better. To make his views clear, Ghaemi defined “mental illness” as the possession of a sickness like bipolar disorder, and “mental health” as the absence of mental disease plus being near to the statistical average of normal personality traits.

“Some of the leaders I’ve examined — such as William Sherman, Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. — were severely, mentally abnormal at certain points,” Ghaemi said. “The reason for their success comes from their having had traumatic experiences and then recovering from them. They were improved by their failures.”

William Sherman, Ghaemi said, displayed signs of major mania such as despondency and attempted suicide. Though Sherman would lapse into long silent moods and talk about how he was suffering from mental depression, he was able to conduct terrifying campaigns in the Civil War because he understood what scared people from his own experience. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who both attempted suicide at various points in their lives, were able to gather broad bases of support because they understood the radical empathy they advocated — something which correlates to people who suffer from depression, Ghaemi said.

Psychiatry professor Dr. Andres S. Martin said he was impressed by the depth of Ghaemi’s research and his interest in the connections between psychology and philosophy.

“Nassir not only happens to be a card-carrying psychiatrist, but also a card-carrying philosopher,” Martin said. “The wide range of his interests reflects not only his expertise, but his intellect as well.”

Meanwhile, four out of five audience members interviewed said that they agreed with Ghaemi’s conclusions, even though they at first appeared illogical.

Zohar Lederman, a medical student, said he was surprised by the way Ghaemi connected psychology to politics.

“Although I am not fully familiar with the material, Ghaemi’s points were very convincing,” he said. “His research shows how important it is to use psychology to look at things both in the past and the present.”

Ghaemi is the author of multiple books on psychology, including his most recent, “The Rise and Fall of the Biopsychosocial Model: Reconciling Art and Science in Psychiatry,” published in 2009.

Correction: November 15, 2010

An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.

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