The Mental Health of America’s Presidents

Published: February 18, 2019

One of the most insidious effects of mental illness is that patients often begin to doubt their own abilities. Take, as one example, depression: Symptoms of the disease go well beyond feelings of sadness, and can include trouble concentrating, withdrawal from social activities, and difficulty making decisions. For sufferers who experience these symptoms, it can be easy to begin thinking of them as character flaws rather than the result of an illness.

And it’s not just depression. Anxiety, social phobias, and bipolar disorders can all lead to feelings of inadequacy in those who suffer from them. But these illnesses have something else in common, too—something that may surprise you.

They were all experienced by American presidents.

Mental Illness in the Highest Office

In a fascinating study by Jonathan Davidson and others from Duke University, nearly half of all U.S. presidents were found to have suffered from mental illness at some point in their lives. Even more surprising is the fact that more than a quarter of them displayed clear symptoms while holding office.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given its general prevalence, the most common mental illness Davidson and his team identified was depression. Surveying biographical sources, Davidson’s team noted that presidents James Madison, John Q. Adams, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, and Calvin Coolidge were all likely to have been depressed, along with a number of others.

Anxiety disorders were also noted, though less than half as common. Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant were likely sufferers, and, making another appearance in the study, it seems likely that so was Calvin Coolidge. In fact, Coolidge’s experience is not uncommon, and for some patients, depression and anxiety go hand in hand.

Alcohol dependence has also been fairly common among presidents. Nixon and Grant were both noted for their drinking, and Franklin Pierce actually died of liver cirrhosis due to long-term alcohol abuse. As Pierce’s example sadly illustrates, patients suffering from depression sometimes turn to alcohol to cope, but the long-term effects can be devastating.

No One is Immune to Mental Illness

It may not be surprising, in light of these stories, that throughout American history our First Ladies have played a role in influencing mental health policies. After all, many of them saw firsthand the effects that mental illness could have on even the most powerful people in the world.

And, indeed, we’ve come a long way from the days of Lincoln and Pierce. Mental illness is better understood, treatments are more effective, and support is more readily available. Yet we still have a long way to go. Stigma remains around mental illness, and many of its sufferers choose to remain quiet rather than seek treatment.

Yet if so many of our great leaders have suffered, perhaps that should convince us that anyone can. Mental illness is not a character flaw or a sign of any inadequacy. It is a disease, pure and simple, which can afflict anyone.

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental illness, there is hope. Contact Families First to learn more.