Mental Illness and Elected Office

Mental Illness and Elected Office
AP Photo/Eric Gay

EDITOR’S NOTE: In response to the national conversation about President Donald Trump’s mental health, Off-Kilter, a podcast from the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has been talking to elected officials and candidates for elected office who live with mental illness and mental health disabilities. As part of that series, Rebecca Vallas spoke with Rep. Garnet Coleman, a state legislator representing parts of Houston in the Texas House of Representatives who has been living with mental illness since he was 17 years old.

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REBECCA VALLAS: Representative Coleman, tell us how you got to be where you are and how your mental illness has played a role in that? 

REP. GARNET COLEMAN: I’m diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Mine manifested in depression. But if you have bipolar disorder you also have bouts of great energy and the ability to go beyond the normal, and then on the other side you literally can’t get out of bed. People will think I mean sleeping, but I mean hiding, and that’s what depression does to you. So I come from a high-performing family and I thought that the highs were just being part of being in my family. I didn’t realize I was bipolar. 

VALLAS: So when people find out that you are an elected official who lives with mental illness what are the kinds of responses that you get? 

COLEMAN: A former colleague of mine said some very disparaging things about me and The Houston Chronicle wrote an editorial slamming him. Most people have said, “I appreciate your courage.” And “you are a role model for others.” My social worker back in the ’90s said that was the best thing that I could do for people — to actually make sure that they know that these illnesses are manageable. So that’s the reality of it.

VALLAS: What kind of obstacles have you faced as a candidate for office, particularly when you first ran?

COLEMAN: Well nobody knew then. When I ran in the special election in ’91 I didn’t say, “Oh, I have bipolar disorder.” It wasn’t until after my father died in March 1994 — it sent me into a tailspin depression and I had to be hospitalized. Everybody found out by the time the 1995 legislative session started. 

VALLAS: So there has been an ongoing conversation about Donald Trump and his mental health, with a lot of armchair diagnosing and labels that people feel explain his behaviors. What do you say to someone who says that people with mental illness can’t or shouldn’t or aren’t able to hold elected office and to follow through with the duties that that involves? 

COLEMAN: First of all, I do believe that people should reveal or be very clear that they do have a mental illness. Yes, people can be in office with a mental illness but it depends on which one it is. And one of the things that we’ve heard about Trump is that he is a narcissist. You can’t do anything about that with medication — it’s not curable nor is there a pill for it. That’s a challenge.

VALLAS: But you yourself live with a mental illness, bipolar disorder, that is manageable. It doesn’t mean that every day is easy for you, as you described. But are you somebody who is able to hold elected office and serve out those duties? And what does that look like?

COLEMAN: First of all, mental illness doesn’t change your IQ. It doesn’t stop you from being smart. So there are things that I have to do with my staff. They have to be cognizant of how the illness [manifests]. I tell everybody coming in what the deal is and how to work with me when I’m depressed. What things are stressors that trigger depression — because that’s the most dangerous side of this. And there are people who are part of my relapse prevention plan. For example, when I first came back from the hospital, the Speaker of the House was able to say, “Hey, are you OK?” So that’s a way that I’ve handled it since 1995. And it’s worked well throughout that time. And the medications have become better and better since then too.

VALLAS: What do you think the biggest myths are that persist in the 21st century about mental illness and mental health disabilities?

COLEMAN: Well, I think the biggest myth is that people can’t be productive. In fact, with good treatment and good medication the actual interference with work is minimal.

VALLAS: Are there any ways that you feel your mental illness actually makes you potentially a better candidate for office or better member of the state legislature than your peers who haven’t had that experience? Are there ways that it gives you an advantage?

COLEMAN: Yes, because I know myself better than most people do and I’ve spent a long time trying to understand what creates a problem for me. So I’m very clear about that. Also, I’m very plainspoken and I think that’s because of having bipolar disorder. I just don’t mince words, and I think that’s because when you’ve seen the abyss, the rest of it is nothing compared to that.

VALLAS: Representative Coleman, thank you so much for joining the show and for your courage in having this conversation at a time when it’s so fraught. 

This interview was edited for clarity and length. To listen to the full interview or read the full transcript, visit the Off-Kilter podcast page on Medium.

Representative Garnet Coleman serves the Texas House of Representatives for the 147th District. Rebecca Vallas is the Vice President for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. She is also the host of Off-Kilter powered by CAP Action.

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