February 17, 2017

By Bob Carolla


Does mental illness give strength and insight? Is the effect different from other illnesses? It’s a timely topic as Presidents’ Day approaches, honoring George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln’s experience with depression is well-documented (the best book on the topic is Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Shenk). It gave him the ability to see beyond the terrible bloodshed of the Civil War to a future of recovery for the nation.

In 2015, the AMC cable channel produced “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” a “historical drama” (i.e., historical fiction) that portrayed Washington having “a mental breakdown” during the winter of 1777-78 when his troops were camped at Valley Forge—with over 2,000 dying of exposure or disease. The portrayal included hallucinations and ravings. Historians soundly rebutted the AMC portrayal—no evidence exists to support it.

However, Washington battled diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis and malaria throughout his life. In “The Health of the President: George Washington,” published in HealthGuidance.org, Dr. Rudolph Marx points out that illness and disability can help shape courage and determination. In this respect, a kind of “parity” exists between Washington’s physical illnesses and Lincoln’s mental illness. In both cases, challenges to their health helped produce the strength and insight to persevere and become two of the greatest—if not the greatest—leaders in American history.

A King with Bipolar Disorder 

The recent release of archival documents of Great Britain’s King George III—who lost the American colonies to Washington’s leadership—provides additional perspective to this topic.

King George III ruled for 60 years off and on. After the loss of the American colonies, his mind and abilities began to deteriorate—not all at once, but in recurring fashion. Historically, he has been tagged with the stigmatizing title of “The Mad King.” Today, historians believe he lived with bipolar disorder, which appeared after the American revolution. Loss of the colonies may very well have been the “trigger” for onset of his condition.

Recently, Queen Elizabeth released more than 30,000 documents about King George III from the royal archives (Many more are still to come). People magazine reported that they show a worsening of his handwriting over time; doctors can also identify descriptions of manic behavior. Ultimately, his illness took over permanently—he went into seclusion to Windsor Castle while his son, the Prince of Wales, took over his duties.

During periods of recovery, King George III was nonetheless popular with the people. Like Lincoln, his personal experience with mental illness may have deepened his insight and compassion. People applauded when in 1786 and 1790, he showed mercy to a woman and man (respectively) who, experiencing delusions, attempted to assassinate him. Instead of being put to death or imprisoned for treason, they were committed to an asylum. As a result, Great Britain eventually adopted “not guilty by reason of insanity” as a formal provision in its body of criminal law.

What’s the lesson here? It’s that mental illness doesn’t discriminate. It can affect presidents and kings. And just like physical illnesses—such as those experienced by Washington—it can shape qualities that contribute to triumph. At the same time, as in the case of King George III, it may also sadly lead to tragedy.

It’s a lesson worth thinking about this Presidents’ Day.

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