Profile: Kjell Magne Bondevik
When Kjell Magne Bondevik stood down as Norwegian prime minister because of his mental health, he was the highest-ranking world leader ever to have done so. In August 1998 Bondevik suffered a depressive episode and temporarily transferred his powers of office to his deputy. After three weeks, Bondevik returned to office to carry out the remainder of his term. He even found himself re-elected a few years later. Many think this was partly because of his willingness to address the preconceptions that surround mental illness.
Despite hesitance from his family and his colleagues, the former Norwegian premier has claimed he came to his decision to disclose his illness quite quickly. His depressive episode struck on the eve of an important cabinet meeting and, though he was certainly unfit for work (“everything was black – even small problems were impossible to solve”), Bondevik feared that speculation about his whereabouts and health would be inevitable if he didn’t turn up to the meeting but remained silent. He also felt that this might be a good opportunity to address the stigma attached to mental illness.
The news that such a prominent political figure was suffering from depression was huge. But Bondevik’s candour was quickly commended at all levels of Norwegian society by people who felt they could be more open about their illnesses as a result. A poll at the time showed that 82% of Norwegians felt that Bondevik was right to disclose his condition and across the spectrum politicians applauded him. The Labor party leader Thorbjoern Jagland said: “It shouldn’t matter. It must be allowed to be sick in this country.” And Carl I. Hagen, of the far-right Progress Party praised Bondevik’s move to be “more open about mental suffering”. One Norwegian tabloid even ran with the headline, “Sympathy for Bondevik – As Brave as Diana”, comparing Bondevik’s disclosure to Princess Diana’s revelation about her emotional problems shortly before her death.
Since his retirement from politics in 2005 Bondevik has spoken about the entrenched view society has of mental health: “We need to make it clear that it is not more mysterious to have a mental health problem than it is to have a physical health problem.” He has also been rather vocal about the lesson politicians can learn from his experience. Politicians, he believes, must recognise that by going public about mental illness they have the chance to normalise it.
Read more contributions to TP's mental health week here