Mental illness seems to be more common among those who are mentally gifted and hold eminent positions and titles in society as its leading scientists, thinkers, writers, artists, and leaders. Here is a look at twenty such famous people from history who suffered from depression or some other mental illness.
Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) used to suffer from extreme sadness and was plagued by suicidal thoughts. His contemporaries used to describe him as being ‘melancholic’. But we now know better. Lincoln, the 16th President of the US, was actually suffering from clinical depression, amply testified to by his poem ‘Suicide’s Soliloquy’ whose final lines were: ‘This heart I’ll rush a dagger through/Though I in hell should rue it!’
Lincoln was responsible for the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the US. Even as a young lawyer practicing in Illinois he used to suffer from the symptoms of both depression and anxiety, ones which ran in his family, with his mother and several members of his father’s family having similar symptoms. In fact, William Herndon, his law partner, once said of him, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” But, Lincoln used to surprise people by telling jokes and reading humorous literature.
Research has revealed that the trailblazing Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) suffered from severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) throughout his adult life. Born in modern day Croatia, Tesla accumulated practical experience in his adopted country of the United States at the Edison Machine Works in addition to his dedicated academic study stretching to several years. His chief innovation was the rotating magnetic field, which is fundamental to alternating current (AC) machinery widely used nowadays in telecommunications. He also broached the possibility of wireless communication between devices, but could not get sufficient funds to develop the technology.
Tesla’s contemporaries saw in him the archetypal eccentric genius, but due to his OCD he had peculiar compulsive habits like using 18 napkins at each meal and asking for 18 fresh towels each morning, walking three times around a building before entering it, and occupying hotel rooms with only room numbers divisible by three. His strict daily regimen included curling his toes one hundred times each night and repeatedly washing his hands. He also suffered from hallucinations after being a witness to his brother being trampled to death by a horse.
Vincent van Gogh
The Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh (1853-90), considered to be one of the greatest Post-Impressionist artists, has been given a variety of diagnoses of his mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorder, and also schizophrenia, which may have run in his family. The fact is he had an eccentric personality and mood-swings, and suffered from recurrent psychotic episodes during the last 2 years of his extraordinary life, and committed suicide at the all-too-young age of 37.
Van Gogh continues to be popular, with his work Salvator Mundi selling at an auction in 2017 for $450.3 million. However, throughout most of his adult life, Van Gogh struggled with mental illness, which is captured so vividly in his letter to his brother, Theo: ‘I am so angry with myself because I cannot do what I should like to do, and at such a moment one feels as if one were lying bound hand and foot at the bottom of a deep dark well, utterly helpless’. During one episode of hallucination, van Gogh cut off his own ear before losing consciousness. He committed suicide by shooting himself in July 1890.
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) is perhaps the most infamous figure in history. It is hard to imagine he did not have some mental disorder or the other given his pathological views, speeches, writings, and policies. Hence, dozens of physicians and writers who knew Hitler personally and those that studied him after his death have advanced varied diagnoses to explain his personality and deeds, such as antisocial personality disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, sadistic personality disorder, and even schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome. Whatever may be the case, Hitler was definitely one ‘insane’ guy if ever there was one even if we find it difficult to pin a definitive mental illness label on his weird self.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) created some of the most sublime music ever. Yet, his letters and unofficial compositions are filled with scatological references to feces, buttocks, and the like. So, people say that these unbecoming preoccupations of Mozart coupled with the vocal and motor tics he exhibited indicate that he had Tourette’s syndrome.
Jack Kerouac (1922-69), the Beat poet and novelist who was a significant influence on the culture of the 1960s, remains a revered figure to date. In 1942, after dropping out of Columbia University, Kerouac signed up for the United States Merchant Marine. When he reported for duty in the Navy in 1943, his superiors transferred him quickly to the Naval Hospital after noticing his odd behavior.
There, doctors diagnosed him with schizophrenia given his auditory hallucinations, ideas of reference, suicidal ideations, and a rambling, grandiose, philosophical manner. He was consequently deemed unfit for service and discharged on psychiatric grounds. As a matter of fact, Kerouac had been hearing voices from a very young age. He recounts that even as a six-year-old he heard God speak to him when he was saying the Rosary, prophesying that Kerouac would die painfully but, ultimately, achieve salvation.
Researchers have tagged on the labels of clinical narcissism and paranoid personality disorder onto the tyrannical Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). It has been suggested that this perhaps stemmed from the childhood abuse he received from his drunken father.
Charles Darwin once wrote, “I am forced to live… very quietly and am able to see scarcely anybody and cannot even talk long with my nearest relations.” This was after the age of thirty when he very seldom left home, almost being bedridden, and lived as a recluse for the rest of his life.
Earlier, Darwin had sailed to the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere in 1831, and gathered evidence that helped him formulate his radical theory of evolution in his book On the Origin of Species. But, once Darwin returned from that voyage, he was not the same man, and recent research reveals that he must have suffered from agoraphobia and panic disorder. For all we know, he may have even suffered from OCD and hypochondria, keeping as he did meticulous records of every new or recurring symptom.
Current scholarship suggests that the Renaissance artist Michelangelo(1475-1564) had both OCD and Asperger’s syndrome (high-functioning autism). This speculation is fueled by the evidence of his “single-minded work routine, unusual lifestyle, limited interests, poor social and communication skills, tempestuous dynamics with his patrons, withdrawal from social peers, and a disdain for most societal norms.” Most of the male members of his family are recorded to have exhibited similar symptoms.
The Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944) recorded the following episode in his diary, which is by far the world’s most famous panic attack, which occurred to him in Oslo during January 1892, and led to his most famous painting The Scream: “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature.” This experience affected Munch so deeply that he made two paintings, two pastels, and a lithograph based on it, as well as penning a poem based on his diary entry.
He similarly lived through bouts of depression that he called his “sufferings.” These bouts, followed by manic periods, were described in diary entries and influenced his modern day diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Munch also experienced auditory and visual hallucinations, which could mean he had psychotic disorder.
There was a family history of mental illness, with his sister being admitted in an asylum once due to bipolar disorder. He had a tragic childhood when both of his parents, brother and sister all died. Munch reflected later that ‘Illness, insanity, and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle and accompanied me all my life’.
The English writer Charles Dickens (1812-70) might have suffered from severe depression, maybe even bipolar disorder, throughout his life. By his early 30s, Dickens was the most famous author in the world. He was wealthy and seemed to have it all. But given his difficult childhood, during which time he worked in a boot factory and his father was imprisoned, Dickens got depressed every time he started a new novel, which would lift as the work progressed. He also walked miles to combat insomnia, a typical symptom of depression. He would routinely walk around London until sunrise, in order ‘to get through the night’. His depression became worse with age.
This megalomaniacal French conqueror Napoleon Bonaparate (1769-1821) likely had narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Though born on Corsica to parents of Italian descent, Napoleon viewed himself as a Frenchman whilst being educated in France. After getting educated at a military academy, he joined the army. Napoleon served as a military commander aggressively expanding French territories in Europe, and eventually became ruler of France in 1799. The NPD gave him ruthless self-determination and sense of grandeur, which made him a successful leader.
Ludwig van Beethoven
The German composer Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) irreversibly expanded the scope of sonata, symphony, and concerto: music has never been the same. Widely regarded as the greatest composer who ever lived, Beethoven’s compositions marked the transition from the Classical period of music to the Romantic, which continue to inspire and intimidate musicians to this day.
New studies opine that he suffered from bipolar disorder. It has been suggested that that is one of the reasons for the dramatic swings in dynamics and tempo in his music, characterizing the dramatic swings from suicidal depression to frenzied mania in his personal life. He was known to experience intense mood swings, characterized by explosive fits of temper and energetic activity and long bouts of lethargy and melancholy. Beethoven’s fits of mania were well known in his circle of friends. In his manic episodes he would end up composing numerous works at once. Sadly, he also contemplated suicide during his depressive moods, as he wrote in his letters to his brothers throughout his life. It was his abuse of alcohol to overcome his anguish that ultimately led to his demise.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (1874-1965) referred to his mental struggles as his “black dog” of depression. But, given his mania, in addition to suicidal thoughts and sleeplessness, his physician, Lord Moran, diagnosed him with bipolar disorder.
Churchill told his doctor that, “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.” But his moods could change dramatically and quickly, being personable in his mild manic phase, and during high mania he would stay up all night writing, ending up producing 43 books in addition to attending to his political duties.
But, Sir Winston Churchill will be remembered more for being the inspirational leader of Britain during World War II, one who offered these words of encouragement to his countrymen even with bombs falling over London and loved ones dying: ‘We shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender’. And, the aggression, iron will, and single-mindedness that made him the perfect war time leader all came from bipolar disorder.
It has been speculated that the American author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) suffered from clinical depression, or even bipolar disorder along with borderline and narcissistic personality traits. One of the world’s greatest novelists, the Nobel Prize-winning Hemingway took his own life after decades of mental trauma in 1961 at the age of 61. Being the true perfectionist that he was, he set himself high standards that meant he suffered from anxiety, which led to alcoholism. Hemingway was also subject to paranoia and psychotic episodes.
The world-renowned English scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727) might have had bipolar disorder. The evidence that seems to corroborate this is his swings between periods of intense mania (such as when he threatened to burn his parents’ house down with them inside it) and deep depression. His inability to connect with people could point to the autism spectrum. He also suffered from delusions and hallucinations, which could indicate schizophrenia. Newton’s father died while he was still in the womb and his mother remarried and abandon him altogether. This trauma could have made him bipolar. Luckily for us, these mental problems did not stop him from inventing calculus, explaining gravity, and building telescopes, among his other great scientific achievements.
The English author Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) “experienced mood swings from severe depression to manic excitement and episodes of psychosis,” all of which landed her in an institution for a time and informed her bouts of suicidal thoughts. Thus, she seemed to have had severe depression and bipolar disorder. After the death of her mother when Woolf was just thirteen, she suffered severe mood-swings and fits of despondency characteristic of bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, efforts to help her were primitive and misogynistic, including removal of several of her teeth, and ‘rest cures’ which included force-feeding, the banning of literature, and isolation. The failure of prescribed treatment and rest-cures meant that she took her own life in 1941. Her suicide note to her doting husband, Leonard Woolf, reads as follows: ‘I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work… I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer’. Woolf was a member of the influential Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, and is also celebrated today as an important figure in the history of feminism.
The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), responsible for two works seen by some as the best novels ever written, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, might have dealt with clinical depression. After writing War and Peace, he was torn apart by a serious depression. And, once he finished writing Anna Karenina, he wanted to renounce not only sexuality but also literary creation and material possessions. Eventually his demons drove him to seriously consider suicide. He wrote in one letter, “The possibility of killing himself has been given to man, and therefore he may kill himself.” Somehow, Tolstoy pulled himself out of this hole by becoming who would now be considered as a born-again Christian.
Tolstoy wrote movingly thus of his mental illness in Confession: ‘I felt that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, that I had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped. An invincible force impelled me to get rid of my existence’.
Gödel was a genius logician and mathematician, and friend of Einstein. Gödel suffered from the delusion that someone was trying to poison him. He was so convinced about the veracity of this delusion that he would eat food only that his wife had cooked. Even then, he usually made her taste it first, just to be sure. So, when his wife was hospitalized for six months, Gödel stopped eating and starved to death.
The American mathematician John Nash (1928-2015), who won the Nobel Prize in economics, is well-known to the public from his biography A Beautiful Mind and the Hollywood movie by the same name. He was professor at MIT and Princeton, and made significant contributions to game theory. He is the only person to have been awarded both the Abel Prize (given for high achievements in mathematics) and Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.
But those who have read A Beautiful Mind will know that Nash suffered from paranoid schizophrenia from the 1950s. This first manifested in his belief that there was a Communist conspiracy against him. His mental illness became public when he gave an incomprehensible lecture at Columbia University in 1959. He spent much of the next two decades in psychiatric hospitals. When he reached his fifties, however, Nash’s schizophrenia mysteriously disappeared, possibly due to hormonal changes.
Nash admitted that at first he could not accept that he was unwell. Nonetheless, he also stated that, ‘I wouldn’t have had good scientific ideas if I had thought more normally’.