Former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik can remember every detail of 31 August 1997, the day he was diagnosed with depression – an illness that he says has enriched and changed his life.
Bondevik, who was in office at the time, recalls that he couldn’t get out of bed that morning, because he had no energy whatsoever. He had experienced a range of symptoms in the weeks that led up to that day: overwhelming sadness, insomnia, lack of energy, concentration difficulties and increasing anxiety.
His wife realised that something was wrong and called a friend who brought a psychiatrist along. Bondevik's foreign minister also arrived.
“I think he had seen over the last few days something was wrong. So he called to hear how I was… and he came," said Bondevik. "They got me out of bed, my doctor took me to the kitchen and after a few minutes he said: ‘Your diagnosis is depressive reaction’.”
Developing a strategy
They then had to discuss what the following steps should be. Bondevik had to chair a very important budget meeting the next day. He met with the deputy prime minister later that evening and explained his condition. She agreed to take over the meeting.
“But of course the prime minister cannot be out of office for some days without giving an explanation to the nation," said Bondevik. "So we discussed how we should do that. I took the decision myself after some minutes: we issue a press release and we say it like it is. I’m ill, I have depressive reaction. I think the others were rather surprised that I would say that.”
“I did it for two reasons. First of all, because if I didn’t say what it was, there would be many speculations in the media - cancer or heart attack. And the other reason, and the most important, was I wanted to contribute to fight stigma.”
He spent the next couple of weeks (which he refers to as being the worst weeks of his life) with his psychiatrist in a cottage in the mountains. Gradually the medication, daily walks and long conversations helped to lift his mood.
The support of his family and friends helped a great deal. “If you know anyone with a mental health problem, give him a signal that you care. 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 said 'you mean something to us'. When you have depression, you feel you are without any value. Life is meaningless.”
Trying to make sense of things
During his discussions with his doctor, they investigated what might have triggered his illness. Bondevik thinks that stress might have had a big role to play.
“I started my job as prime minister in 1997 and I did not change my working method when I became prime minister. That job is different from almost all other jobs. The prime minister is a constant focus of attention, and receives an enormous number of enquiries. I tried to deal with far too many of them myself, and hardly got any breathing space.”
At the same time, he had to deal with the death of two of his friends as well as that of his brother-in-law within a short space of time.
“Grief is, according to experts in this field, very exhausting, more than I was aware of. It depletes your strength. And grief that is not properly managed, will easily lead to a loss of energy.”
Back home, Bondevik caught up on how the media responded to his press release. “When I decided to go public, I didn’t think of the consequences. It was breaking news. Most of the comments were respectful, some not. I do not regret my openness. I got many positive expressions.”
Thousands of letters of support from the public poured in. Many were from people in a similar position who thanked him for his openness and honesty about his illness.
Returning to work
All his colleagues welcomed him back with open arms and was glad to see him back. However, there was one colleague who said that people should be careful what they expect from him and that he wouldn’t be able to cope with tough debates in parliament.
“Well that’s a sign of lack of understanding. If you come back, you come back. If you cannot take a tough debate in parliament, you cannot be prime minister. It was my choice to come back.”
Bondevik feels it should be as easy to return to work after a mental breakdown as it is to return after a physical illness. If an employee has a physical breakdown, he is welcomed back, but if he has a mental illness, people doubt his ability.
“Why? Tell me that. Because you can recover 100% from a mental illness, as you can from a physical illness. I’m an example. I was back at my job in four weeks and I was re-elected as prime minister three years later. We must create an environment in our society where it is as easy to talk about mental ilness as it is about a physical illness or condition.”
Bondevik says that those four dark weeks taught him plenty of important lessons he otherwise wouldn’t have learnt. It improved him as a human being and as a politician.
“Life has expanded after that experience. Because of my illness, I have learnt to enjoy life more. If you have met the real black side of life, you can enjoy the good sides more.”
He has learnt to pace himself, to set limits, to spend more time with his family, to enjoy life more and to appreciate beauty around him.
“And I learnt another important lesson: The necessity to dare to feel your weakness, and to accept all the painful feelings. Is it possible to have weaknesses when you are a leader? Yes. Leaders are also human beings, and all human beings have their weaknesses.
“It was my experience that through this period of so-called weakness I became stronger, and I became a better leader because I learnt so much about human nature and the balance between the physical and the mental situation… I learnt that we are all vulnerable. My eyes were opened in a new way."
- (Ilse Pauw, Health24, October 2007)
Kjell Magne Bondevik toured South Africa in October 2007 to raise awareness of mental illness.