Studies have shown that there is a higher incidence of mental health disorders in political leaders and creative geniuses. Although nobody can be certain about the diagnosis of a deceased historical figure, it hasn’t stopped researchers from making educated guesses.
Aristotle noted, “Those who have been eminent in philosophy, politics, poetry and the arts have all had tendencies toward melancholia.” Melancholia was the old term for what we know today as depression. The following is a list of 11 historical figures and speculation regarding their mental health:
- Abraham Lincoln – Depression
Abraham Lincoln led the United States through the Civil War, a turbulent time in our history. He was reputed to suffer from depression for most of his life. According to one Lincoln biographer, letters left by the president’s friends referred to him as ‘the most depressed person they’ve ever seen.’ His mother and several members of his father’s family showed similar symptoms, validating the fact that depression can be genetic. He is assumed to be the author of a poem published in 1838 titled “The Suicide’s Soliloquy.”
- Ludwig van Beethoven – Bipolar disorder
Beethoven died from liver failure in 1827 at the age of 57. He had been drinking heavily for years to self-medicate his many health problems. Beethoven was well known for his fits of mania and when he was on a high, could compose numerous works at once. It was during his depressed periods that many of his most famous works were written. In letters to his brothers throughout his life, Beethoven informed them that he contemplated suicide. During the early part of 1813, he went through such a depressive period that he neglected his appearance and would fly into rages at dinner parties.
- Edvard Munch – Panic attacks
The painter of the iconic “The Scream” endured the world’s most famous panic attack in Oslo, Norway in January 1892. Munch recorded the episode in his diary:
“One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord; the sun was setting and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature.” The experience deeply affected the artist and he created two paintings, two pastels and a lithograph based on his experience. At the time, his bipolar sister was in an asylum.
How could one person have created a masterpiece as huge and monumental as the Sistine Chapel ceiling? According to a 2004 paper in the Journal of Medical Biography, his single-minded routine signified autism. He had few friends and difficulty forming relationships. He didn’t even attend his own brother’s funeral. It is believed today that Michelangelo had high functioning autism.
- Charles Dickens – Depression
As an adolescent, Charles Dickens worked in a boot factory and was forced to live alone when his father was imprisoned. By his early 30s, he was a famous author. He fell into depression at the start of each new novel. His friends recounted he was near mania near the time of completion of each novel. His depression worsened and he separated from his wife and 10 children to live with an 18-year-old actress. Four years before his death, he was involved in a train crash. Unhurt, he assisted dying passengers. His depression accelerated and his creativity ceased.
- Charles Darwin – Agoraphobia
Despite the voyage of the Beagle and the writing of “On the Origin of Species,” Darwin was incapacitated. Trembling, nausea, crying, visual hallucinations seem to have been triggered by agoraphobia which caused him to be bedridden by the age of 30. Agoraphobia is a type of anxiety disorder which an individual fears and often avoids places or situations that might cause panic or feelings of entrapment. He avoided talking to his own children and was greatly distressed by controversy following publication of his book. He kept meticulous records of each new symptom indicating obsessive compulsive disorder.
- Winston Churchill – Bipolar disorder
When he was in his 30s, Churchill told friends he was haunted by the “black dog of depression.” He sat in Parliament and considered suicide. He told his doctor that he had to be careful when he stood in a train station, not liking being near the platform edge when the train sped by. He once said, “I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water; a second’s action would end everything, a few drops of desperation.” In his mild manic phases, Churchill was personable, but his moods changed quickly. During high mania, he would stay in all night and eventually wrote 43 books.
- Vaslav Nijinsky – Schizophrenia
The choreographer and danseur was a household name in the early 1900s. Nijinsky was famous for his gigantic leaps and en pointe prowess, uncommon in male dancers of the period. By the age of 26, schizophrenia was affecting his life and work. He spent the rest of his life in and out of mental hospitals, often going weeks at a time without saying a word.
- Kurt Godel – Persecutory delusions
Godel was a brilliant logician and mathematician as well as a great friend of Albert Einstein. Godel thought someone was out to poison him. He was so convinced of this, especially in later life, that he would only eat food which had been cooked by his wife. He made her taste it first, just to be sure. When his wife was hospitalized for six months, Godel simply stopped eating and starved to death.
Tolstoy was not affected by depression until middle age but when it hit him, it hit hard. He contemplated giving away all his possessions and became celibate. He determined to give up writing altogether saying, “Art is not only useless, but even harmful.” Tolstoy came from a wealthy family, was a celebrated author and was a father of 13 children. His demons drove him to seriously consider suicide. Eventually, Tolstoy pulled himself out of his hole by becoming what we would now consider a born-again Christian.
Role of substance abuse in history with mental health disorders
All of these great minds lived in an era when mental health disorders were largely untreated or treated in ineffective ways. Many mental health disorders as we know today are actually a result of substance abuse. What historical texts don’t always explain very well is the common widespread use of drugs and alcohol in past centuries and the addictions that accompanied them. Substance abuse may have played a part in the mental health status of these historical figures, either causing the mental health disorder or a result of the mental health disorder.
We do know that a common potent drug was easily available in the 19th century called laudanum. Upper class women of the period carried laudanum in their handbags, supposedly for headache treatment. Until the early 20th century, it was sold without a prescription. Laudanum is a tincture of opium containing approximately 10 percent powdered opium by weight, the equivalent of one percent morphine. Reddish brown and extremely bitter, laudanum contains almost all of the opium alkaloids including morphine and codeine.
Clinicians, pharmacists and researchers have made great strides in the treatment of both substance abuse and mental health disorders since the 19th century, and new treatments modalities and the use of technological advancements continue to be discovered. If you or someone you know is in need of treatment for a mental health disorder or addiction, read the rest of our site to learn more about our programs.
Written by Veronica McNamara, Sovereign Health Group writer