Imagine a long, hot summer day in Illinois, 1835, a time where the American Dream was propulsed by the philosophy of manifest destiny and tensions increasingly grew between the northern and southern states. A backdrop not ideal for any young mind to take root in the optimism of change, perhaps growing ever more discouraged of such during the rise of political polarization. Rebellion, retaliation, plague, and industrialization became common with American life, prompting what could appear to be the brink of division for the nation. In the discouraging atmosphere, one would expect to find a lanky, awkward, and melancholy young man wandering the woods of New Salem with a gun in hand, wondering if life was really worth the misery. He was apparently suicidal, drawing concern from his peers that if he doesn’t shape up soon, he might fall into total insanity, or even worse, take his own life.
This man would eventually become the sixteenth president of the United States. Abraham Lincoln of Illinois would go on to rid America of the evils of slavery and create a image as one of, if not the greatest, presidents that ever lived. But how could a young man so unhinged even begin to establish a legacy as profound and morally commendable as Lincoln’s? How could one be that strong in breaking free of his own chains to move an entire nation to understand the plights of human integrity being faltered under the institution of it’s greatest evil? Where does the illness end and the genius start?
Well it is important to know that Mr. Lincoln is not an isolated case study of someone who was both influential and mentally ill. In fact, out of the first 37 U.S. presidents, it was found that nearly a quarter of them suffered from depression alone, with others accounting for disorders such as bipolar depression, social phobia, and mania. At first it may seem funny and slightly ironic that the people we choose to represent American’s greatness can be troubled, but perhaps we may not fully understand some of the advantages that come with these disorders.
It is well reported that people with these illnesses often excel in creativity, empathy, and rationality. For instance, many people who are considered to be mentally healthy may have what is called a “mild-positive” illusion, a concept of viewing reality in a more positive, albeit less realistic, light. This is done usually in reaction to a traumatic situation as the positive mindset can help individuals be more comforted in these times, almost like watching TV for distraction. This is by no means an unhealthy practice as this accommodation for happiness gives individuals proper motivation to get through a tragic situation. However on a larger scale, this half-blinded approach to hard realities proves to be more ineffective in decision making in leadership. It has been shown that leaders who have had mental illnesses were able to make better decisions in times of duress because of their emphasis on fact, also what has been referred to as the opposite of mild-positive illusion: depressive realism.
When considering Lincoln’s time, many of his peers grossly underestimated the oppressive natures of slavery. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska act was passed, which was commonly seen at the time as an act of aggression by the south against free-state values. Lincoln was able to see past these arguments for justifying the act as he evaluated the underlying principles of the freedom of all men. This deviance in thought could have only came about if Lincoln was a deeply methodical individual. His depression allowed him to step into the shoes of someone who was born as a slave, and through the universal understanding of pain, decide that all must be done to prevent slavery from spreading. A harsh reality that he had to face, but without its confrontation, great works could not have been done.
Similarly Winston Churchill, a manic depressive, helped tremendously in World War II in the effort against the Nazis, mobilizing the RAF and ultimately saving the UK from german occupation. Churchill would have periods of extreme laziness and alcoholism that would later turn 180 degrees into an ultra productive and extroverted mindset. Although someone so seemingly unhinged might seem to be a terrible choice for a leader, it was his eccentricities that gave him a proper mindset to think realistically in a time of war. Like Lincoln, Churchill was rational, disputing many of his peers and criticising them for lenient policies towards Nazi appeasement. He could see the ineffectiveness of the Munich agreement, a policy which permitted the Nazis to annex the northern parts of Czechoslovakia, as he knew that Hitler’s intentions were much more sinister than to agree to appeasement, saying, “You were given the choice between war and dishonour; you chose dishonour and will have war.”
These and other leaders knew their downfalls, but they also knew how to work with them for the better. The mental deviance that seems so far removed from normal culture may be daunting, even downright frightening, because we all seem to have a desire to assimilate nicely into society without much trouble from our convictions. However, if one has such a mindset, or is a sufferer of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or anything else that may cause pain, the time is now to embrace it, and let their insights not discourage you from being silent about these special intuitions of creativity, empathy and rationality. Through pain, a better vision for the future is born, and it is up to the sufferer to make these ideas a reality.