Secretary of State Debra Bowen’s disclosure that she suffers from severe depression drew an outpouring of support and concern Saturday from other state officials and mental health experts, but also sparked a debate about whether she should serve out the remaining four months of her term.
Bowen told The Times on Friday that she has been sporadically absent from her office because of a “debilitating” depression that has also led her to move from the large home she shares with her husband to a mobile home in a a run-down industrial area on the outskirts of Sacramento.
“It has been 30 years since I have had a depression that has weighed this heavily on me, so I am in new territory,” Bowen said.
Her comments drew praise and support from others who want to remove the stigma from mental illness, including Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).
A leading advocate in the Legislature for mental health services, Steinberg marveled that Bowen could keep her illness hidden during a 22-year career in politics that included elections to the state Assembly, Senate and her current statewide post.
“Depression is often a hidden disease,” Steinberg said. “My thoughts were, how brave of her to come forward and how she must be suffering. I hope she gets better.”
Steinberg said having such a high-profile figure come out and talk about her depression will help others overcome the stigma.
“We have come a long way in eliminating it [stigma] but we have further to go,” Steinberg said. “The fact that a public figure has been willing to talk about her illness, I guarantee will help untold numbers of people who are afraid to talk about their own situations.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a 2010 report that 1 in 10 Americans report suffering from some form of depression that affects their lives, including 4% of residents who met the criteria for major depression.
Those most susceptible to depression include persons 45 to 64 years old and women, the CDC said.
There are psychological and medical treatments that can make depression “manageable,” but “the problems seldom go away entirely,” according to Gerald C. Davison, a professor of psychology and gerontology at USC.
“People like her [Bowen] can function at a high level, even when in the midst of a bout of depression,” he said, adding but that it “takes a lot of character.”
Bowen showed character in talking openly about her illness, according to some mental health activists.
“Some who have a mental illness chose to talk about it and most do not because of the stigma attached,” said Steve Pitman, president of NAMI Orange County, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“Debra Bowen has the courage to talk about it, hopefully opening the door for others to seek treatment without fear of discrimination,” said Pitman, whose brother was diagnosed with mental illness.
Bowen said that she is absent some days from the office, but on those days is able to perform her job from home with a phone.
Working in a public position while battling depression “is what I’ve done for 22 years,” Bowen said. “It’s frustrating not to be able to give 100% of what I know I am capable of.”
Evan Goldberg, the chief deputy secretary of state, confirmed that his boss’ absences have not hindered work as the office plans for the Nov. 4 statewide election that includes 100 legislative seats and the offices of the governor, secretary of state, attorney general and other state officials.
“She is continuing to do her job and prepare for the November election,” Goldberg said, noting that voter guides have gone out on schedule.
Pete Peterson, a Republican candidate to succeed Bowen, has been highly critical of the office under Bowen’s stewardship, including delays in projects to modernize its computer systems, and said he disagrees with Bowen’s assertion that she can do her work from home.
“That’s an office where you have to be physically present,” Peterson said. “This is an office that has not performed well for eight years.” He said he does not have enough information to decide whether she should step down early.
No elected official called for her to resign or take a leave.
“So long as she can perform her duties while healing, she should finish her service,” Steinberg said. “If she had heart surgery or cancer and was unable to work temporarily, no one would ask that question. That is the continuing challenge of stigma and mental health.”
Bowen, is not sure what she will do when her term ends, but she hopes her story can help change attitudes about mental health.
“I hope we are approaching a time when we start to treat depression like what it is, which is an illness, and that we don’t just give lip service to mental health,” Bowen said.