The gendered nature of this election cycle has not escaped anyone, from the obvious point that the leading Democratic contender is a woman, to Trump’s notoriety for sexist remarks on the campaign trail. Most recently, he tweeted to his opponent Ted Cruz regarding Cruz’s bout of depression approximately ten years ago.
Despite ongoing (and increasing) attention to mental health issues, along with discussion of the remarkable prevalence of mental illness (approximately 1 in 5), there remains persistent stigma attached to these diseases. Part of the reason is that it is difficult for those on the outside to understand. Though scientists are developing better diagnostic criteria, there is not an easy blood test, not everyone is responsive to medication, the symptoms are not as visibly physical (relative to, example, bleeding or breaking bones), and powering through the symptoms of depression is not nearly as easy a feat as one might believe. Celebrities’ “coming out” about their own struggles (or more sadly, their suicides) arguably promotes more open conversation about these challenges, and in turn facilitates people viewing it as more acceptable to seek out help. Patrick Kennedy and Tipper Gore notwithstanding, however, we see little firsthand discussion of this in the political sphere, making the Cruz case noteworthy.
Heidi Cruz said, “When I came out of Washington and the White House, I didn't feel that there was really a glass ceiling in the administration ... and Texas was very different,” with the “traditional culture” and social environment less hospitable and perpetuating her feelings of depression. She was reportedly found in 2005 by an Austin police officer, appearing to be a danger to herself. Her transparency on the matter is noteworthy. A Cruz advisor responded to the Trump attack by saying, “About a decade ago, when Mrs. Cruz returned from D.C. to Texas and faced a significant professional transition, she experienced a brief bout of depression. Like millions of Americans, she came through that struggle with prayer, Christian counseling, and the love and support of her husband and family.”
Apart from the question of whether candidates’ spouses should be fair game for attacks, in particular of such a personal nature, there is the fact that it frames the issue of depression as something to which one must “confess” and can be “accused of,” rather than a medical condition for which she appropriately sought treatment. Such a characterization of depression only further reinforces people’s sense of shame, reticence about symptoms, reluctance to reach out for help, which can be dangerous and even fatal depending on the severity of the condition.
There are many grounds on which to criticize the political extremism of Ted Cruz or even Heidi’s political influence in his campaigns. However, reinforcing the closeting of depression by attacking Heidi on these grounds is a major (and dangerous) setback in the treatment of mental health conditions.