Mental Illness in the Oval Office

By Laura Greenstein | Feb. 12, 2016

Living with a mental health condition makes each goal more challenging to achieve and each piece of success more impressive. For those who think that someone living with depression, bipolar disorder or any other mental health condition cannot live a full life and reach their goals, than take a moment to look at the lives of many of our nation’s past presidents.

According to a study done by three members of the Psychiatry Department at Duke University Medical Center, the rate of presidents who lived with mental illness is comparable, or even higher than, the general public.

The leaders of the Duke study scrutinized any histories they could get their hands on to find proof of mental illness including all presidents from 1776 to 1974. They applied their findings against a strict evaluation to determine which presidents we can reasonably assume lived with a mental health condition. Their conclusion stated that 18 out of 37 presidents met criteria suggesting mental illness, roughly half of the presidents from that time period. And 27% of them experienced symptoms while they were in office.

An idea posited in Dr. Nassir Ghaemi’s book A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, states that it seems that living with a mental health condition somewhat prepares leaders to be able to perform well in times of crisis. “Creativity and resilience is higher in people with mania and realism and empathy is higher in people with depression compared to normal subjects," states Ghaemi.

While there seems to be many presidents who lived with mental illness—Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt being two of them—here are a few you might not have known about.

James Madison

The “Father of the Constitution,” and historical giant, James Madison, lived with major depressive disorder. During his presidency, Madison wrote the first drafts of the U.S. Constitution, co-wrote the Federalist Papers and sponsored the Bill of Rights. He was known for having very little emotional range and passion, often appearing fatigued and gloomy. His depression was defined by inertia, hypochondria and hoping for an early death. His progressive physician encouraged him to exercise by taking walks and going horseback riding instead of the customary treatment for the time, bloodletting.

Woodrow Wilson

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the only president to have a Ph.D., Woodrow Wilson, lived with generalized anxiety disorder. His presidency was during a time of great historical importance, World War I, which helped cause his anxiety to skyrocket. His coping mechanism for his anxiety was overeating to the point of becoming obese, which in turn led obstructive sleep apnea. His anxiety was also worsened by the loss of his wife during his time in the White House.

Lyndon B. Johnson

A charismatic and exuberant president that took over after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, LBJ’s presidency was characterized by his ability to bring people together across political parties. He worked hard to accomplish legislation on civil rights, environment, health care and education in order to achieve what he deemed the “Great Society.” His presidency was also characterized by his bouts of mania and depression, what we believe was actually bipolar disorder. His symptoms were worsened by the incredibly unpopular Vietnam War, which essentially ruined LBJ’s reputation and mental health.

Richard Nixon

Recent historical findings show that Nixon abused prescription drugs and alcohol during his time in the White House. Some of the pills he was taking regularly were amphetamine-barbiturates, sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication. The stresses of the Vietnam War and Watergate certainly didn’t help Nixon’s substance abuse problem.

Whether or not it is accurate to claim that mental illness gives you a higher aptitude for leading during times of high stress, it seems more than fair to claim that a person with mental illness can be a successful leader. Don’t ever let your mental health condition determine your path.

Comments
pricillae e. hill
Everyone on this planet has some king of mental issue. It's just that some are more severe than others. It's just a matter of knowing how to cope and live life the best can be and be productive in some passionate cause. Having something to live for is what makes life worth living, it don't matter the mental or cognative abilities.
2/26/2016 6:35:57 PM

Ewa Marie Seiler
You've listen only 3! Who are the rest?
2/26/2016 3:50:34 PM

Barbara
I would like to open the discussion to include those who are caring for the developmentally/intellectually disabled who, in their 20s or 30s, also develop behavioral/mental illness. I never knew this could happen. Frightening to watch a practically non-verbal adult with functoning age of a preschooler develop depression, OCD and panic/anxiety attacks.
2/26/2016 3:09:18 PM

Stephen
Nice.

You might consider amending your article to include, likely the most recognized president, Abe Lincoln. He knowing struggle with melencohia I.e. depression in modern times, and his journal entries are littered with thoughts about his battle with depression. Check out Lincoln's Melancholy By Joshua Wolf Shenk; a couple of my friends highly recommend it.
2/26/2016 12:51:15 PM

Jeremy D Wallace
Awesome
2/26/2016 11:50:00 AM

Erika Frederick
Great aticle on success and overcoming mental illness. It just goes to show you that you can be successful and have mental illness. With God we can overcome any and all things.
2/26/2016 11:12:31 AM

Betsy
James Madison was president from 1809-1817; the Constitution was signed in 1787. All that stuff was done before he was president.
2/26/2016 9:52:51 AM

Garth Harding
I believe the great English Statesman and Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill had bouts of Mental Illness during WW1 and WW2. And several writers,artists and maybe slightly,maybe, Albert Einstein.
2/26/2016 7:17:39 AM

Greg
Very empowering and encouraging. I wish every reader takes the last sentence to heart: "Don’t ever let your mental health condition determine your path."
2/25/2016 11:00:02 PM

Nikki
Beth, how do you conclude there's no such thing as hypochondria when the CDC reports 20, 000 cases are reported each year?
2/25/2016 10:33:11 PM

Pamela Holberton
It is time that these facts are understood by the general public.
It will help to defeat the stimatism of mental illness.
2/25/2016 9:51:45 PM

Paul Nagy
About James Madison you state, "During his presidency, Madison wrote the first drafts of the U.S. Constitution, co-wrote the Federalist Papers and sponsored the Bill of Rights. Your assertion, however, is false. Granted you have correctly listed his accomplishment, but he did them all before becoming president. We had no presidents before the Constitution was ratified because we had no unified government. The Federalists Papers were written to secure the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was added to allay the fears of those who feared the Constitution would grant too much power to the Federal Government. Before you make historical assertions, do check your facts first.
2/25/2016 9:31:38 PM

Richard DeRuyter
Why are articles such as this not made available to share on social media? I would think it would be a great opportunity to raise awareness.
2/25/2016 8:58:19 PM

Charles
Any presidents with schizophrenia?
2/25/2016 7:12:07 PM

Craig Royal
As a lifelong sufferer of depression and anxiety, I was impressed by this article's implications. These Presidents would stand no chance of serving in today's environment of stigma and hysterical media scrutiny. That's sad and in itself depressing. For future reading on Lincoln's state of mind throughout his life, I commend the book Profound Melancholia.
2/25/2016 6:33:45 PM

Joan
Woodrow Wilson also contracted the flu during the end of WWI, during his attendance at the Paris Peace Conference. He reportedly had neurological and cognitive sequelae that may have impacted his capacity in negotiating the treaty, and possibly been a factor leading to WWII (See the book The Great Influenza" by John Barry.)
2/25/2016 6:24:27 PM

Paul Shtogryn
Believe it or not King George III suffered from mental illness while the colonies revolted in America.
2/15/2016 5:40:49 PM

Michael
Great article on mentally ill presidents of the USA.
2/15/2016 5:27:16 PM

BETH
Nice, except there is no such thing as hypochondria. That is a name for unexamined symptoms that are misinterpreted by those around the sufferer.
2/15/2016 12:36:28 PM