According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) an estimated 1 in 10 Americans suffer from depression. This statistic also includes our nation’s leaders, our presidents. On this President’s Day we are going to take a look at how mood disorders have affected some of the most famous men in American history. Before you take a peek at the rest of this post, do you think you can name all the presidents who have had depression at some point in their lives?
In 2006 an article was published by psychiatrists at the Duke University Medical Center which reviewed the biographies of American presidents from 1776 to 1974. This study, which was published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease analyzed the historical data of 37 presidents looking for symptoms of mental illness as defined by the criteria of the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic Statistical Manual. What they found was startling. According to the Duke researchers, 49% of former presidents had experienced some form of mental illness. Depression was the most common type of presidential mental illness (24%) which some experts say is a high percentage compared with the national average.
Other mental health diagnoses included anxiety, social phobia, substance abuse, and bipolar disorder.
Here is a list of the presidents who have been diagnosed with depression through analysis of historical data:
• John Adams
According to the historical literature, John Adams was an unhappy president. Some think he may have suffered from both depression and bouts of mania. He was said to have experienced recurring attacks of depression in 1756 when he studied law. In his diaries he wrote about “great anxiety and distress.” He confessed later in life that he was not one to suffer in silence: “I sighed, sobbed, and groaned, and sometimes screeched and screamed. And I must confess to my shame and sorrow that I sometimes swore.”
• Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson, who followed John Adams, as our third president also experienced what we would call clinical depression today. Jefferson suffered from physical ailments such as back problems and headaches which contributed to his melancholy. Financial woes and personal loss deepened Jefferson’s depression. His wife, Martha, died after her last pregnancy at the early age of 33. It is said that following his wife’s death that he stayed in his room for three weeks and ventured out only to join his daughter Patsy on all-day rides on horseback.
• James Madison
James Madison has been described as one of the smallest and frailest of our presidents. As a young man he is said to have felt insecure about himself and had difficulty becoming independent from his family. Madison developed a depression characterized by inertia and wish for an early death. The death of his college roommate and best friend deepened his depression. Following his friend’s death he wrote to a friend: "As to myself, I am too dull and infirm now to look out for any extraordinary things in this world, for I think my sensations for many months have intimated to me not to expect a long or a healthy life . . . therefore have little spirit or elasticity to set about anything that is difficult in acquiring, and useless in possessing after one has exchanged time for eternity."
In the days when physicians attempted to cure “melancholia” by blood -letting, Madison’s doctor prescribed physical exercise including horseback riding and walking.
• John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams, became our 6th president. Adams was said to have brain diseases such as essential tremor, cerebrovascular disease, and depression. Alcoholism and depression seemed to run in Adam’s family. Two of his sons died early from alcohol abuse. Adams, plagued by internal conflicts, was often described as dour, aloof, and angry. His son Charles described him as hiding behind an iron mask because he didn’t show his feelings. Adams is said to have found relief in attending church, walking, poetry, and astronomy. He also found swimming to be calming and took daily excursions to the Potomac River at 5 a.m. to swim in the nude.
• Franklin Pierce
Franklin Pierce was a president who experienced great loss. All three of his sons died before adulthood. Tragedy would besiege Pierce right before his inauguration when his last living son who was only 11-years old died during a train wreck. Pierce and his wife survived but were in a state of grief and depression when he entered the presidency. Later in life Pierce was condemned by society for his denunciation of Lincoln’s policies including the Emancipation Proclamation. Political controversy, poor health, the death of his wife, and the death of his good friend, author Nathaniel Hawthorne caused Pierce to fall into a deep and entrenched depression.
• Abraham Lincoln
Abe Lincoln is probably the president most people think of when you talk about depression among our nation’s leaders. Lincoln was said to have suffered from not only severe bouts of depression but also suicidal ideation. Author Michael Burlingame, in his book, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, depicts Lincoln as a man who suffered multiple losses leading to his depression. Before the age of twenty, Lincoln had lost his newborn younger brother, his mother, aunt, uncle, and sister. Today we know that early losses, especially of a parent, can lead to depression later in life. Lincoln’s depression was visible and remarked upon by those who knew him such as his law partner William Herndon who described Lincoln in this way: "His melancholy dripped from him as he walked."
Lincoln’s “melancholy” has generated much interest in writers and scholars today. Some authors believe that what may be considered a liability or character flaw for a president of today was essential for Lincoln to lead the country. Writer Joshua Wolf remarks in The Atlantic that: “ Lincoln didn't do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.”
• Calvin Coolidge
Coolidge was another president who suffered from multiple losses in his family. He lost his mother when he was only 12 and then subsequently lost his sister Abigail five years later. His father was left to rule the home with an iron hand. It may have been resentment for his father’s ways that Coolidge dropped his first name of John (his father’s name) and simply kept his middle name, Calvin. Coolidge would be described by some as a bitter and angry man.
During Coolidge’s presidency he would experience yet another loss, that of his favorite son Calvin. Following his son’s death Coolidge showed extreme symptoms of depression including fatigue, guilt, loss of appetite, and spent much of his time sleeping or napping. He was best described as a very unproductive President for the next four years, avoiding decision making and interactions with both his cabinet and Congress. His depression was so extreme that he was prone to making angry outbursts to his staff and family.
There are some writers who speculate that depression may have contributed to his death four years after Coolidge left office but this theory remains speculative at best.
In addition to these leaders there have been other presidents who have been depicted by scholars and historians as likely to have suffered from a mood disorder including: Rutherford B Hayes (depression), Theodore Roosevelt (bipolar), Woodrow Wilson (depression), Herbert Hoover (depression), Dwight Eisenhower (depression), and Lyndon Johnson (bipolar).
It shows that people can achieve great things despite mental illness including depression. Depression knows no boundaries. It doesn’t matter if you are rich, poor, young, old, or even the president. Anyone can be vulnerable to the depths of depression. But what some of our leaders did not know many years ago is that depression could someday be successfully treated. It makes one wonder if history would have been altered in any way if presidents like Lincoln, for example, could have found relief from his chronic and persistent “melancholy.”
For more information about presidents and mental illness please refer to the following Health Central articles: