Depression and Greatness in Abraham Lincoln

LincolnToday is the birthday of our 16th, and arguably most important, president.

Lincoln not only carried the enormous burden of leading the Union through the Civil War, he carried the personal burden of clinical depression. He experienced his first severe episode in his 20s, and from then suffered through a “lifetime of depression.”

Many people don’t know this about Lincoln, whose strength of character and ability to cope with adversity commanded the respect of his contemporaries and continues to capture the attention of historical observers. In Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (Mariner, 2006), Joshua Wolf Shenk shows us Lincoln’s experience of depression and argues that his response to this suffering was one of the roots of his greatness. (This book was one of my top reads of 2013, which you can see here.)

Read this and see how it might challenge your view of terms such as “mental illness,” “success” and “healthy”:

“Can we say that Lincoln was ‘mentally ill’? Without question, he meets the U.S. surgeon general’s definition of mental illness, since he experienced ‘alterations in thinking, mood, or behavior’ that were associated with ‘distress and/or impaired functioning.’ Yet Lincoln also meets the surgeon general’s criteria for mental health: ‘the successful performance of mental function, resulting in productive facilities, fulfilling relationships with other people, and the ability to adapt to change and cope with adversity.’ By this standard, few historical figures led such a healthy life” (25).

Indeed. Few historical figures led such a healthy life. 

Happy birthday, Mr. President.

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3 comments

    • Javier

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I’ll take up your offer of doing more posts on this book. Also, for your information – you should’ve written “whet,” not “wet.”

  1. Pingback: Abraham Lincoln in the Valley of Depression | From Cover to Cover

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