LCL Staff Clinician Dr. Jeff Fortgang comments on the Boston Globe’s article about Mayor Michelle Wu’s mental health having been targeted by online rumors.
Rumors about Boston Mayor Michelle Wu being treated for a panic attack and questioning her “strength as a leader” were highlighted in a Sunday Boston Globe article (3/27/22 in print as, “Anatomy of a Lie”). The article focuses both on the use of misinformation to attempt to damage her reputation, and also on the underlying issue of stigma surrounding mental health challenges, “as well as the underlying biases against women and people of color in leadership”.
An LCL article or post is, of course, not a place for political positions. Perhaps it is a place to recognize the milestone that Mayor Wu and her predecessor, interim Mayor Kim Janey, represent as the first non-white non-males to steer the city, and certainly is a place to acknowledge the challenges to their well-being that overt and implicit biases create.
It is further our organization’s place (as well as every other entity’s place) to take a stand against stigmatization, and any attempt to damage someone’s public standing (in this case, that of a lawyer) based on a perceived mental health vulnerability.
During my 20+ years on the clinical staff, we have encouraged lawyers, law students, and judges to recognize their times of emotional vulnerability – we all have such moments – and to reach out for support and, when indicated, professional help. Most of them are reacting to life stresses that weigh on all human beings from time to time. For the past year or two, for example, LCL staff have seen many, many law students for whom adapting to law school during COVID (learning remotely in isolation, followed by realistic fears when returning to in-person academic life) has been somewhere between unsettling and traumatic. We are pleased that law students and lawyers at large have finally begun shedding their fears about image, taking note of their feelings, and connecting with us. It takes more strength and maturity, truth be told, to acknowledge and face a problem than to pretend it isn’t there. It’s hard to imagine trusting a leader who never has any second thoughts or disquieting concerns. As the Globe points out,
“Panic attacks — episodes of acute anxiety, sometimes but not always triggered by a specific stressor — are not rare among American adults, and they are no cause for shame or secrecy. Panic attacks are treatable, brief, and need not disqualify someone from serving in a high-stakes job, especially if experienced rarely, said Dr. Edward Silberman, a psychiatrist at Tufts Medical Center.”
In fact, the research of Jeremy Coplan (Professor of Psychiatry, Downstate Medical Center) and others indicates that wrestling with anxiety/worry is correlated with higher intelligence, and this makes sense, in that worrying can be productive when it comes to important, complex decisions. (It becomes a clinical issue when constant worry overrides all other states of mind.) Some of the law students with whom I’ve met, those who have been wrestling with panic or other forms of anxiety, are asking themselves questions like, “Am I doing the right thing?”, “Is there a better answer to this challenge?”, “Are the choices I’m making consistent with my core values?” People who are asking those questions are those I’d want to see in positions of power, not those who are always sure they’re right, or who view decisions in simplistic or binary terms.
An irony of the Mayor Wu case, according to the Globe, is that reports of her anxiety treatment have been fabricated in order to discredit her, but they would only demonstrate her strength. Real resilience is not living a life free of all possible mental health symptoms (who does?); rather it is recognizing and facing those challenges when they arise. And I have to say, with the problems she has to face as the new mayor – COVID, financial, police, and environmental policies, the state of public education, etc. – it would be strange if she were worry-free. I hope she’s getting the support that anyone in her position would need, same as for all the lawyers whose well-being we care about.
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