On Nov. 30, 1874, Winston Churchill was born into a family already of political prominence. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, the eighth Duke of Marlborough, had become Chancellor of the Exchequer in his 30s, a role similar to that of Secretary of the Treasury in the United States.
Winston Churchill was also born into a family with a history of mental illness. Although it isn’t clear whether it was the consequence of neurosyphilis or schizophrenia, his father had displayed psychotic symptoms in his life and Winston’s daughter Diana, who had a major depressive episode in 1952, would ultimately die by suicide in 1963.
Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation . . . could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance which rallied and sustained us in the menacing summer of 1940
However, it was Winston Churchill’s own illness, which he referred to as his “black dog,” that played a major role in World War II and Churchill’s career development. Some suspect that it was Churchill’s recurrent episodes of depression that allowed him to realistically assess the threat of Germany. Because of his depression he may have understood that simply conciliating Hitler would not stop Germany from advancing across Europe.
In the years leading up to the war, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and many British leaders did not see, or wish to acknowledge, Hitler’s true motives and did not want to confront Germany’s advances with force. Churchill though was convinced that Hitler had sinister intentions. After Chamberlain’s resignation in 1940, Churchill was appointed prime minister and changed Britain’s political strategy from one of appeasement to one of active resistance.
In addition to serving as prime minister for decades, he wrote 43 books and had an extensive amount of correspondence.
Psychiatrist Anthony Storr described how Churchill used his experiences of depression to inform his political decisions: “Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance which rallied and sustained us in the menacing summer of 1940.”
It was Churchill’s experience with mental illness that ultimately allowed him to be successful leader. Looking back at Churchill’s life, it also becomes clear that he experienced symptoms of hypomania. His friend Lord Beaverbrook described Churchill as always either “at the top of the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression.” During those periods when he wasn’t depressed, Churchill produced an incredible amount of work. In addition to serving as prime minister for decades, he wrote 43 books and had an extensive amount of correspondence. This has led many to suspect that Churchill may have lived with bipolar disorder.
Churchill’s depressive realism helped change the course of world history. He not only refused to submit to his black dog, he was able to use it to his advantage. If it were not for Churchill being influenced by his mental illness, the war in Europe might have ended in defeat for Britain, the U.S. and the rest of the Allies. Winston Churchill died in 1965 at the age of 90 after experiencing a stroke.