Episode 153: Dr. Nassir Ghaemi on the Advantages of Mental Illness

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In this episode, I interview Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, an academic psychiatrist. He talks about his work and his book, A First-Rate Madness, where he explores the upside of mental illness by looking at successful business and political leaders.

Guest Bio:

Dr. Nassir GhaemiNassir Ghaemi MD MPH is an academic psychiatrist specializing in mood illnesses, depression and bipolar illness, and Editor of a monthly newsletter, The Psychiatry Letter.

He is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, where he directs the Mood Disorders Program. He is a also a Clinical Lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and teaches at the Cambridge Health Alliance.

In the past, he trained and worked mostly in the Boston area, mainly in Harvard-affiliated hospitals (McLean Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Cambridge Hospital). He has also worked at George Washington University, and Emory University. His medical degree is from the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University.

His clinical work and research has focused on depression and manic-depressive illness. In this work, he has published over 200 scientific articles, over 50 scientific book chapters, and he has written or edited over half a dozen books. He is an Associate Editor of Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, and is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

After his medical training, he obtained an MA in philosophy from Tufts University in 2001, and a MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2004.

Born in Tehran, Iran, he immigrated to the US at the age of 5 with his family and was raised in McLean, Virginia by his father Kamal Ghaemi MD, a neurosurgeon and neurologist, and his mother Guity Kamali Ghaemi, an art historian. A graduate of McLean High School (1984), he received a BA in history from George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia, 1986).

He is an active writer, and besides his books, newsletter, and scientific articles, he writes a column for Medscape.

(source: nassirghaemi.com)

Show Notes:

(03:28) When you hear the word successful, who’s the first person that comes to mind, and why?

(04:00) Is that the image of success that has evolved for you? As we experience and go along in our journeys, it seems like there is a redefined image of success. Is there one for you?

(05:41) Nassir’s background

(08:15) Your book, “A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness,”  it’s one of the most influential books that I’ve ever read. And the reason is, I guess I’ve been searching for answers, since my mother is bipolar…. I’ve always been fascinated with struggle, and how people respond to struggle.

(09:10) So, the thing for me is, how do people build resilience in their lives, if they even can? Or is it just genetics? In your perspective, as you experience it clinically and now you’ve done all of this work and this book, do you believe that empathy and resilience and the other topics that you covered in this book, are for the most part genetic, or does it come from experience, or both?

(11:27) Why don’t you dive into Winston Churchill to start? The experience that he had in his thirties with depression, then how that kind of developed him as a leader? Can you dive into some of the research that you did there?

(15:47) In the retelling of these stories, how important these stories are and these men are, how this psychiatric or psychological aspects that we’re talking about right now are typically left out. What do you think about that? Why is that left out of the history books?

(19:21) What sort of response have you seen from this book since you’ve written it, just looking at the online space, and also interactions with other people?  

(21:21) How has the scientific and psychological community responded to it? Because it seems like a lot of these conversations are typically put to the side, hidden…I’m just wondering. Does it make things much more transparent with the thoughts and beliefs and studies that the community is experiencing?

(23:25) One of the things that I heard you say that I just found fascinating is this statistic. Resilience is obviously bouncing back from trauma. And that actually, eighty percent (80%) of people with traumatic experiences actually do bounce back, and are resilient, and do not develop PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). Again, another statistic that most people don’t know. Can you talk a little bit more about that, and maybe why that’s something that the general public doesn’t realize.

It’s not really the traumatic experience, per se, that’s the problem. But it’s that combined with the person’s underlying susceptibility to anxiety and depression that makes the difference.

(25:17) So would you say, you mentioned John F. Kennedy, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would those two figures figure into that response?

(28:18) And one can argue that, without those traumatic experiences, the mood disorders that they tended to, they probably wouldn’t have been prepared for those moments and history as well.

(29:28) Are there any figures in history that you haven’t had a chance to research and dive into that you’d like to apply this logic to, or this science to?

(30:34) Just in your work in general, are there any people that you modeled, that you strive to be like? … Is there anybody that, or a group of people that have helped you become who you are?

(35:09) Diving into your work and the work of others, I can definitely sense that potentially, I have benefitted from some of the mental illness tendencies of my family… I wonder if you looked at your own life and the work that you do and say, “You know what, this is actually a mild case and this has benefitted me in some way.”

(39:25) Is that research (Swedish study) publicly available yet?

(39:40) You mentioned the Malcolm X autobiography. Are there any other books that have most impacted you, and why?

Writings of philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers

Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, John Kenneth Galbraith, H.L. Mencken

(41:15) If you could have dinner with one person you admire, past or present, who would it be and why?

Dr. Martin Luther King

Website: http://Nassirghaemi.com

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