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.

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