Earlier this year, Dallas County District Attorney Susan Hawk disappeared.
Her office fielded questions as to her whereabouts explaining that she was just taking a summer break, and that everything was fine.
Everything wasn’t fine, as the public would learn later.
As Hawk’s absence continued, the DA publicly revealed she was struggling with depression. More recently, in a candid interview with D Magazine, Hawk revealed that she was experiencing suicidal thoughts and had spent two months getting treatment at a psychiatric hospital in Houston.
Hawk is back on the job and the Republican DA says she’s feeling good and healthy, but local Democrats are calling on her to resign from her position.
It’s important to be candid and upfront about mental health, but did Hawk effectively paint a target on her back by being honest about her struggles with a diagnosed mental illness?
Greg Hansch, public policy director of the Texas Chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness, says he doesn’t think so. “Susan Hawk is one of a number of public figures who have experienced mental illness,” he says. “Some have come forward, some haven’t. But she chose to come forward at a certain point a lot later on then she could have, and ultimately that was detrimental to her recovery.”
Dallas County Democratic Chair Carol Donovan has expressed unease with a report that Hawk had considered taking an entire bottle of sleeping pills at one point during her treatment.
“Yes, we can all survive depression,” Donovan told CBS News, “but what concerns me greatly is now finding out the seriousness of her considering suicide during a period that was just a few weeks ago, and then expecting her to be able to run the entire district attorney’s office.”
Hansch says that’s not fair a concern. “Depression is a condition that can be effectively treated,” he says. “The recovery rate is exceedingly high, it’s well above 50 percent if a person is receiving treatment.”
Hansch says treatment includes medication, counseling and/or therapy. He says Donovan’s concern would be legitimate if Hawk were going untreated for that condition.
“Suicide, as we know, is one of the leading causes of death among that age group – and others,” Hansch says. “We can look at politicians in the past – Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln – who have had serious mental illnesses and have been treated and have been able to recover from that and perform effectively in their jobs.”
In fact, you don’t have to go back that far to find examples. There was Thomas Eagleton, who was nominated as George McGovern’s vice presidential candidate in 1972. The press found out that he had actually gone to see someone about his struggles with depression and it effectively spoiled his candidacy.
If someone in our workplace says that they’re struggling with depression, we treat them with sympathy. But in this case, in the public spotlight, Hawk is getting a lot of criticism. Hansch says that’s an interesting dichotomy.
“One thing that we do know is that stigma regarding mental illness is on the decline,” he says. “That has a lot to do with people coming out of the shadows, especially people who sit in the public eye.”
In 2004, a Tarrant County study found that more than 40 percent of people would not want a person with a mental illness holding public office.
“That’s kind of a striking number,” Hansch says. “That was over 10 years ago.”
Hansch says it is unfair for people to criticize Hawk and call for her resignation.
“She did what she did,” he says. “Let’s face the facts: She let people go, she fired people. But that probably had a lot to do with what she was experiencing in her mental health status. I’m certainly not calling for resignation. She is on a path of recovery right now and I want to see where this goes.”