Five Men with Mental Illness who Changed the World
by Samantha Moore
“Men have called me mad; but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence – whether much that is glorious – whether all that is profound – does not spring from disease of thought – from moods of mind exalted at the expense of the general intellect.”
This is my first post with Please Live; with my first blog my desire is to showcase men throughout history who have changed the world while living with the challenge of mental illness. The purpose here is not to glorify mental illnesses, but rather to show how even those of us who struggle daily can make a lasting impact in the world. Our suffering does not have to limit us by confining us to our beds or locking ourselves away in our houses. These men lived in times when treatment for mental illnesses were ineffective or nonexistent, and they still managed to live lives worthy of history books.
Society still misunderstands mental illness and the mentally ill as a whole. We’re still labeled as crazy. Some of us simply perceive the world around us differently. My hope is that the stories of these men will inspire you, despite your inner battles, and will remind you that life is worth living even with a mental illness.
5) Abraham Lincoln – Depression
The 16th president of the United States, one of our most beloved historical figures, a man who always worked to help for the greater good – suffered from severe depression. He called these states of depression “a tendency to melancholy”. He often told stories and jokes at odd times, because he “needed the laughs to survive”. On several occasions he contemplated suicide, and according to his law partner William Herndon, “His melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” He suffered two major depressive breakdowns at ages 26 and 31 which were severe enough for his friends and family members to form a suicide watch.
To anyone close to President Lincoln, his depression was clear as day. Today, mental health professionals unanimously agree that President Lincoln’s symptoms match up to the clinical diagnoses for major depression. However, through humor, the support of friends and family, and the known treatments of the time, Abraham Lincoln was able to preside over the civil war and lead the union to victory over the confederacy, issued the emancipation proclamation, signed the 13th amendment to the constitution to permanently abolish slavery, delivered the Gettysburg Address – one of the most quoted speeches in American history, among other major accomplishments.
4) Edgar Allen Poe – Depression or Bipolar Disorder
We all know Poe for his dark horror tales. Due to his writing, it doesn’t come as a surprise to know that Poe also lived with depression. However, it is widely questioned whether, in reality, he lived with Bipolar Disorder instead of depression. He also had an interest in psychology. Fellow students where Poe attended University described him as an “impulsive, chaotic” gambler. A fellow cadet one wrote about Poe, “[we] considered him cracked.” Poe himself wrote that he “fell in love with melancholy” and he attempted suicide in 1848, after which he wrote, “I went to bed and wept through a long, hideous night of despair.” It is no surprise to know that he self-medicated with alcohol as well.
Poe certainly suffered for his art. He put his inner battles down on paper, penning some of the most influential works in history. From The Raven, to The Mask of the Red Death, to The Tell-Tale Heart – Poe’s works have become staples in literary education all over the globe.
3) John Nash – Paranoid Schizophrenia
Nash is a mathematical genius and received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994. He developed the Nash equilibrium theory and currently works in game theory, differential geometry, and partial differential equations. However, paranoia soon began to take over his life. According to his wife, he began to believe that all men who wore red ties were part of a communist conspiracy against him. Colleagues realized that something was amiss when he presented a speech that was incomprehensible. In 1959 he received the diagnoses of paranoid schizophrenia. Always against his will, he went to many different psychiatric hospitals and received treatments of antipsychotic drugs and insulin shock therapy. After a slow a steady recovery each visit, he returned to teach math at Princeton University, where he also earned is doctorate.
Nash himself credits many of his scientific breakthroughs to the different way in which he viewed the world. He is quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t have had good scientific ideas if I had thought more normally.” While he personally was not a fan of the treatments presented to him and preferred to stay away from medication, he was able to create a safe atmosphere and support system for himself to live a healthy life despite his inner battles.
2) Ludwig van Beethoven – Bipolar Disorder
The world’s most famous composer and pianist suffered from bipolar disorder. As a child he was beaten and exploited by his father which caused his hearing loss. His music broke molds as “it soared, it flew, it triumphed against natural laws, all while struggling against itself in a way that suggested no possible resolution”. But with his passion came his oddities; his tendency to change residences all over town, his unkempt appearance, his lack of personal hygiene, his withdrawal into isolation. When his deafness solidified he wrote, “I joyfully hasten to meet death.”
Despite overwhelming circumstances: child abuse, health problems, deafness, and crippling depression accompanied by soaring mania, Beethoven’s music molded society in such a way that no composer has ever done before.
1) Sir Isaac Newton – Anger issues, Bipolar Disorder, Paranoia
Yes, the man who invented calculus, developed the laws of motion, explained gravity, and built the first reflective telescope also lived with mental illness. He has been called psychotic, having bipolar disorder, schizophrenic, socially awkward, and had many dramatic mood swings. As a child he preferred to be alone and created miniature mills, machines, cards, and other inventions. He had anger issues and recalls threatening his parents that he would “burn them and the house over them”. His temper made him unpopular, and in moments of remorse he would write lists of all his sins and wrongdoings to lament over. He was fiercely afraid of criticism and rejection and kept many of his scientific accomplishments secret for that reason. In 1693 he went five days without sleeping which lead to a psychotic break in which he believed his friends were conspiring against him.
Despite the storm inside, Newton managed to pen the laws of gravity, the laws of motion, how light refracts into rainbows, Newton’s law of cooling, and many other scientific and mathematical advances that are the foundation to many modern sciences.
As you can see even though these men suffered their own challenges with mental illness, they lived powerfully influential lives that are still touching the world and society today. They changed the world for the better because of their ideas and creativity that our beautiful minds give us. They’ve proven that mental illnesses are plagues that wear down on our emotions, our bodies, and our social lives – but they can also be catalysts for great inventions, works of art, or advancement.
Written by Samantha Moore