What Happens When a Powerful or Controversial Figure Gets Sick or Dies?

Updated

As people worldwide take in the changing political climate and stressors of a global pandemic, there can be social, political, and economic fallout whenever a controversial person or person in power falls ill. 

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In some cases, when the head of a world power falls victim to an illness, that one diagnosis can change the world’s history. We’ve seen the world stop when other famous people have died, whether from illness or an unexpected death. But when a pandemic claims the lives of hundreds of thousands all over the world, it takes on a new feeling when it also makes a world leader ill.

News like this can create extraordinary uncertainty, especially when a world leader becomes ill while attempting to usher a country through a difficult time like in a pandemic. Throw in a deep political divide and a looming election, it can leave a country’s citizens unsettled as it is rocked to its core. How does this affect people’s mental health? How do people manage during times of duress and uncertainty?

What Happens When a Controversial Person or One in Power has to Take a Step Back?

An infamous person known for their controversy or position of power isn’t likely to step down easily when diagnosed with a severe illness. They may likely reject recommendations from their physicians and medical experts. This kind of behavior is not only likely from politicians, but also celebrities, business leaders, and other public personas. They may fear having to backtrack on previous stances and held opinions, or they may think that the public sentiment toward them will change. 

Whatever the case, it’s likely that scheduled events get thrown in the air, and no one can be certain whether things will go on as planned. Regardless of the outcome, most countries have contingency plans when their leader has to take a step back from their responsibilities. 

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Who Takes Their Place? 

Depending on the person affected, whether it’s a politician, CEO, or infamous person of power, there are usually plans set in motion when they have to give power to a successor. It can be something like a temporary shift in responsibilities, or something more permanent. If the person becomes unable to perform their role, there’s likely a Plan B already in place.

Emergencies do and have come up in the past where someone in a position of power or controversy gets sick, incapacitated, or dies while holding office. In the executive branch of the U.S. government, that is known as the 25th amendment in the Constitution.

In cases of a controversial person falling ill, there may not be a back-up plan to keep pushing forward with their political agendas or public causes. The illness tends to spotlight who will take their place and what happens next in the event of a death. 

What the media says

Following the news of a politician’s changing medical condition, the media tends to place that person in the spotlight with close scrutiny of their medical condition, progress, or setbacks. It is not unexpected, as the media works to sort out what details are relevant or readily available to share with the public.

Depending on the person, their popularity, and their illness or health status, the media can help unite people in concern or add more pressure to a fraught situation. Each country around the world has different media organizations attempting to share and update the story, while the Internet has made it easier for people to find news and commentary that aligns closest with their values.

All of this is to say that it is no longer like the past, when there were only three network TV channels, sharing the same story, the same video, and the same news. As seen in decades past with shocking losses and deaths of famous celebrities and well-known people in power, the media has the power to:

  • Affect a nation’s mood
  • Focus on details otherwise unknown to viewers and readers
  • Make or break a public figure or person who holds power

The media also has the power to overwhelm and overstimulate, adding stress and anxiety to an already uncertain time. What goes from one bad piece of news can quickly snowball into a giant wallop of a stressful news day, no matter where you’re getting your news from.

How to Protect Your Mental Health

It is always important to protect your mental health, but even more so when you’re facing uncertain times. The media has become more present in our daily lives, leading to experiences where the collective consciousness seems to suffer constant fatigue from overexposure to negative news.

If this is happening to you, the quickest and most efficient way of cutting out stress from your life is to simply unplug from your news sources for a day or two. Getting bombarded by a constant feed of negative news every day can significantly negatively impact your mental health. 

Some people online have taken to calling it “doomscrolling,” which is exactly what it means--scrolling through negative news on social media. It can feel hard to step away from your social media, where you may be also in contact with close friends and family--but it’s also helpful to disconnect. 

Delete those apps from your smartphone, clear your browser history, and turn off the TV for a few days. Give yourself some time to reset and refresh internally.

How to Handle Anxiety of a Fallen (or Ill) Leader Amid a Pandemic

Political leaders, famous business people, and celebrities are under the microscope of the public--and any negative news about them could undermine a country’s morale, especially when there are other major issues at play. In a pandemic, nothing can be more uncertain when you hear that even those with the most amount of money, power, or access to top-of-the-line medical care can become severely ill.

The anxiety of a pandemic affects every aspect of one’s life, as we have all seen with COVID-19. It can be a bit unsettling to see a person of power struggling with an illness that has killed hundreds of thousands worldwide.

Take hold of your anxiety by focusing on the positives in your life that aren’t affected by the illness’ outcome. Try to refocus your energies and attention on other things that are going on in the world besides news surrounding this person.

Figure out your feelings

You don’t need to rely on a television news report or an internet article to tell you how you should be feeling. It’s okay to formulate your own opinions before taking everything the media says as valid. How you feel and react toward news is personal to you and shouldn’t be manipulated by outside sources. The loss of normalcy is something that can cause grief for anyone. Expressing grief in all its forms is important, and that is a personal journey for every person.

No matter who says it, you can feel particularly burdened if someone tells you how to feel about certain things. It has the potential to add mental strain as you struggle with consolidating what you’re feeling against what the media says you should be feeling. 

Find ways of coping with the stress of the unknown

Situations like a global pandemic, or other moments of huge uncertainty can feel untenable when paired with leadership that can be seen as lackluster or not capable. Hearing this type of news may impact you negatively, causing you to feel fear and anxiety of the unknown or of what’s next.

Make sure to stay connected with your networks of friends and family, if you can. When things seem to be getting out of whack for you, pick up the phone and text or call a friend to let them know how you’re feeling. Talking to someone about the issues affecting you will allow you to get their perspective on things, possibly alleviating some of your fears.

If you are looking for additional help, talking with a therapist or counselor can help. Looking online for some support groups during this time may make it a bit easier to relieve some stress or rid yourself of anxiety. 

Pay attention to your needs

When the world news has you stressing out, pay attention to how you’re feeling and determine your needs to keep your mental health in check. Get regular sleep and exercise and maintain your daily routines. Try not to skimp on eating and enjoy foods that are healthy for you. Make sure to take moments out to breathe, even taking quick walks to shake up any built-up stress.

How News of an Illness Impacts the Public

The news of an illness affecting a person in power or a controversial person may affect you in ways that you never would’ve considered. You may find that you feel depressed and lack the energy to carry out your typical daily routines. Or you may become physically ill, not knowing what will happen next if the person gets even sicker or dies. 

Mental stress can produce physical effects that shouldn’t be ignored. In the past few months, some health experts have described this feeling of exhaustion from the continuous onslaught of negative news and stress as “crisis fatigue.” Adding to the uncertainty of months of a pandemic, the news of a severely ill political leader or high-profile business person can tip the delicate balancing act of normalcy.

Coming together as a community could be a helpful way to air out any stress you may be feeling, or sharing your emotions as a group. In a pandemic, folks are coming together on video calls or neighborhood forums to share their thoughts. Consider joining online by searching on social media platforms such as Facebook, Reddit, Instagram, or other neighborhood apps like Nextdoor.

You can also take some time to yourself. Focus disconnecting as best as possible. Learn to relax by taking deep breaths, going for a walk, or simply going off the grid for a few hours each day. In the end, the news will still be there. It’s important to maintain your mental health and listen to yourself.

How to Process a Significant Person’s Death if it Happens?

Hearing bad news that a person in power has died can leave you in shock and disbelief that this can happen to someone with access to the best medical treatments and healthcare possible. 

When asked about how COVID-19 should be viewed when it comes to affecting those in power or surrounded by controversy, Milroy J. Samuel, M.D. said, “COVID-19, as we learned in the last 24 hours, has the ability to affect the lives of any and everyone. Life is a gamble. We play the odds and pray for the best.”

Accepting that illness can affect people in all ranks of life can make it easier to cope with grief’s effects that follow such a death. It brings a new perspective to the illusion that people in power are somehow immune to illness and tragedy. The death of a famous person, whether loved or hated, can have ripple effects across a nation. People can grieve in all sorts of different ways, sharing their thoughts on social media, or coming together to hold vigils.

It can be hard to process the death of a person that has influenced people’s lives in negative and/or positive ways. You may expect to go through various stages of grief, especially if it comes during a time of extreme instability or period of unrest.

The Interruption of Power Due to Illness

Although no one can predict what ultimately happens due to an illness, many factors are at play when a disease affects a public persona. You may feel any number of things, like awaiting the unfolding of any fallout, or simply the loss of a tenuous seeming “normalcy.”

Individuals everywhere may be trying to process their grief and anxiety stemming from a rocky political climate, on top of a vicious illness that spares no one, including the most powerful persons.  

If you're looking for more on collective grief, loss, or anxiety, read our guides on climate grief and climate anxiety.


Sources

  1. Pittaro, Michael, Ph.D. “Crisis Fatigue and the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Psychology Today, 10 August 2020, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-crime-and-justice-doctor/202008/crisis-fatigue-and-the-covid-19-pandemic.
  2. Watercutter, Angela. “Doomscrolling Is Slowly Eroding Your Mental Health.” Culture, Wired, 25 June 2020, www.wired.com/story/stop-doomscrolling/.

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