SA 047: Dr. Nassir Ghaemi on the Advantages of Mental Illness

advantages of mental illness

In this episode, I interview Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, an academic psychiatrist. We talk about the benefits of mental illness, about adversity and how we’re able to build resilience, and many other things about mental illness and mental health.

Guest Bio:

Nassir Ghaemi MD MPH is an academic psychiatrist specializing in mood illnesses, depression and bipolar illness, and Editor of a monthly newsletter, The Psychiatry Letter.

He is Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, where he directs the Mood Disorders Program. He is a also a Clinical Lecturer at Harvard Medical School, and teaches at the Cambridge Health Alliance.

In the past, he trained and worked mostly in the Boston area, mainly in Harvard-affiliated hospitals (McLean Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Cambridge Hospital). He has also worked at George Washington University, and Emory University. His medical degree is from the Medical College of Virginia/Virginia Commonwealth University.

His clinical work and research has focused on depression and manic-depressive illness. In this work, he has published over 200 scientific articles, over 50 scientific book chapters, and he has written or edited over half a dozen books. He is an Associate Editor of Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica, and is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

After his medical training, he obtained an MA in philosophy from Tufts University in 2001, and a MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 2004.

Born in Tehran, Iran, he immigrated to the US at the age of 5 with his family and was raised in McLean, Virginia by his father Kamal Ghaemi MD, a neurosurgeon and neurologist, and his mother Guity Kamali Ghaemi, an art historian. A graduate of McLean High School (1984), he received a BA in history from George Mason University (Fairfax, Virginia, 1986).

He is an active writer, and besides his books, newsletter, and scientific articles, he writes a column for Medscape.


Some Questions We Ask:

  • What is Dr. Ghaemi’s image of success?
  • How do people build resilience in their lives, if they even can? Or is it just genetics? Does he believe that empathy and resilience and the other topics covered in his book, are for the most part genetic, or does it come from experience, or both?
  • In the retelling of the stories of some of the world’s great leaders, this psychiatric or psychological aspects of their lives are typically left out. Why is that left out of the history books?
  • Are there any other books that have most impacted him, and why?
    • Writings of philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers
    • Writings of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, John Kenneth Galbraith, H.L. Mencken
  • If he could have dinner with one person he admires, past or present, who would it be and why?
    • Dr. Martin Luther King

What You’ll Learn In This Episode:

  • Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mental illnesses and how these affected them as leaders
  • Some studies and statistics on trauma and resilience, mental health and success
    • Swedish study showing clear statistical association between political, military and business success, and being a first-degree relative of somebody with a psychiatric illness, specifically affective illness, meaning depression, bipolar.

It’s not really the traumatic experience, per se, that’s the problem. But it’s that combined with the person’s underlying susceptibility to anxiety and depression that makes the difference.

  • How we “benefit” from mental illness


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