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"Three Horrible Weeks' that Changed a Leader's Life

16 Oct 2007

By Tamar Kahn

Sometimes grown men do cry. And when they do so in public, you can be sure everyone sits up and pays attention.

Just ask former Norwegian prime minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, who has been touring SA to raise awareness about mental illness.

Eight years ago, he stunned the world when he announced that he was deeply depressed, and was handing the reins of government to his deputy, Anne Enger Lahnstein.

He issued a frank statement to the Norwegian public and then, under his doctor's supervision, retired to a mountain cottage to recuperate.

Given the misconceptions and stigma that surround mental illness, his remarkable admission could easily have catapulted him into the political wilderness.

Instead, his honesty was rewarded. After the "three most horrible weeks of his life" he returned to work, and subsequently went on to serve a second term as prime minister from 2001 to 2005.

With hindsight, the weeks leading up to his crisis in the summer of 1998 were marked by classic signs of depression, including insomnia, anxiety and difficulty concentrating, says Bondevik.

Although he had mentioned these symptoms to his doctor, it had not occurred to him that his mind was taking strain - until one day at the end of August, when he woke up and could not get out of bed.

"My wife realised something was wrong and called one of my best friends, who brought along a psychiatrist," says Bondevik. His doctor diagnosed "depressive reaction", a condition Bondevik had never heard of before.

"I used to have the attitude that mental disease was something that could never happen to me … but there is a lot of mental disease in the population, much more than we think," he says.

Later that evening, Bondevik called his deputy to his house, and asked her to take over his commitments, including chairing a budget meeting the next morning. He also decided to issue a press statement disclosing his condition.

It is hard to say whether this was a carefully calculated move, or simply the instinctive reaction of a consummate politician, but whatever drove him to such frankness it had a profound effect on the Norwegian public.

"During the weeks of my illness I got thousands of letters, and in a country the size of Norway (with a population of just over 4-million), that is a lot. Many of them said they were in a similar situation, that it was of great value that I said what I did.

"It helped (them) talk to their family, (their) doctor, to get professional help," he says.
Bondevik attributes his break-down to a combination of the stress of his job as prime minister, and the emotional strain brought on by the death of two close friends and his brother-in-law, who all died of brain cancer within a short time.

Thanks to professional help, medication, and the support of his family and close friends, he recovered soon.

"Despite the fact that I was prime minister at the time, I felt I had no value at all. It was so helpful that my wife and children told me, 'You mean something to us'. If you know anyone with a mental health problem, give him a signal you care," he says.

The experience left a lasting mark. "Through my period of weakness I became stronger, and I became a better leader because I learned so much about human nature. I also learned to appreciate the good moments in life, to take a long breakfast with my family on Sunday morning, and to listen to classical music.

"As a politician and a leader I also learned to set limits to what people can demand of me. I don't have to say yes to all requirements."

Bondevik retired from politics two years ago, and founded the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights. Today he spends much of his time talking about his experience of depression in the hope of dispelling misconceptions about mental illness.

He likens mental illness to "breaking a leg inside", and challenges employers to give people recovering from mental breakdown the same care and support that they would accord a worker who had suffered a physical injury.

"If an employee has a physical breakdown, they welcome him back, but if an employee has a mental illness they doubt he can work again. But you can recover 100% - I'm an example of that."

In Norway, between 15% and 20% of the population is likely to have a mental illness during their life time.

In SA, the figures are even higher. About a third of South Africans are likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, a mood disorder, a substance abuse problem or psychosis, according to the South African Stress and Health Survey published this week.

© Business Day, 2007.

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