Tips for Identifying Depression in Loved Ones from Lewis and Clark

Patient Expert

When I was reading the Stephen Ambrose book about Lewis and Clark, from time to time Ambrose interjected comments about Lewis's inability to write his famous journals. There are huge gaps in the two year period of the expedition - gaps in which Lewis simply wrote nothing about what he was seeing. At other times, Lewis was almost garrulous on paper, noting every little detail about a new bird he had seen, or plants, or the herds of elk and buffalo. In trying to ascertain why these gaps existed, Ambrose had to speculate. There were several possibilities - including a lost canoe with parts of the journal; illness; the fact that Clark wrote every day so perhaps Lewis didn't feel he had to - but the one that seemed most satisfactory to Ambrose was that Lewis suffered from depression, and that explains the weeks and months during which he didn't write.

Whether this is an accurate diagnosis or not, Lewis' behavior during the trip - as well as many of his written statements -- does provide a good picture of a man who might be depressed. During the expedition, he drank very little, so his alcoholism is probably not important here. What is important are the following kind of behaviors and attitudes.

  • For months, Lewis didn't write, though he was perfectly capable of doing brilliant work on paper.
  • Lewis stated great plans for the future, but felt he had not achieved them, even when he was - at that very moment - showing extraordinary daring and clever planning.
  • Lewis could blow his top in anger when it was not necessarily the best way to handle events.
  • Lewis occasionally stated that he was not happy with his past accomplishments and didn't deserve the good fortune that was being showered on him.
  • Not least, of course, when the expedition was over, Lewis did nothing to prepare his and Clark's journal for publication, thus denying himself the glory he deserved.

For friends and loved ones of a depressed person, this kind of behavior can be helpful. A depressed person doesn't have to state that he's depressed to be in a low mood. A depressed person, especially a young student, might show anger or be indolent in his studies; a parent might think this is laziness or an "I don't care" attitude, but it could easily be depression (this is especially upsetting to a parent when the adolescent has a high I.Q. or has demonstrated great skills in the past.) Similarly, an older person might state that he/she has accomplished nothing during the past 50 years - baffling those who think that the older person is a role model for the ages.

These can be symptoms of depression; keeping Meriwether Lewis in mind could help those of us who are around accomplished people who deny their accomplishments and can't do the "simplest" tasks.
So, how do we explain Lewis's extraordinary accomplishments? How put his supposed depression together with his great leadership and great courage?

I cannot claim to be either a great leader or a very courageous man, but I do know that one of the ways I have kept my depression at bay over the years is to be active - indeed, to be very active; never to let a moment go by when I am not engaged in something that taxes me. Sure, I think I will never be able to do what I set out to do; sure, I think I've failed at what I've actually done; and, sure, I can scarcely get out of the bed some mornings. But, overall, my dysthymia is kept at bay by a great deal of activity.

This, too, may be a clue to parents or friends as to the tremendous energy that a person is putting forward to disguise or compensate for depression. And it takes great energy, which is one of the reasons many people with depression sleep a great deal