“Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Next year is an election year, candidates from both political parties are beginning to throw their hats into the ring, subjecting themselves to incredible public scrutiny and, in some cases humiliation, for the chance at becoming the president of the United States. In previous generations, the electorate frequently voted for candidates that they knew little about, taking their chances they had made the right pick. For the 2016 election that will be impossible. The media will subject the candidates to the most intensive inspection this side of the Westminster Dog Show. You might ask yourself; Who would subject themselves to this? Why would someone do this to themselves? What kind of person would think they had the type of ability to handle such a daunting task? You might even believe that a person would have to have something wrong with them to even consider being the President of the United States. It seems that many historians and psychiatrists agree with you.
A 2006 article in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease conducted an in-depth study of the first 37 presidents of the United States. If you were absent that day, those are the presidents from George Washington to Richard Nixon. Material about each president was extracted from hundreds of sources and presented to experienced psychiatrists, each of which conducted an independent review of the correlation between behaviors, symptoms, and medical information and the source material to the DSM-IV criteria for mental disorders, a reference book which the psychiatric community uses to form a diagnosis and develop a course of treatment. This study concluded that eighteen (49%) of the Presidents met criteria suggesting a psychiatric disorder: depression (24%), anxiety (8%), bipolar disorder (8%), and alcohol abuse/dependence (8%) were the most common. In 10 instances (27%), a disorder was evident during presidential office, which in most cases probably impaired job performance.
The intention of this article is not to denigrate the character or mental capabilities of those that have held the Oval Office, it is rather the opposite. It takes incredible character, perseverance, persistence, and resilience to run for the presidency of the United States, let alone function in what is perhaps the most high pressure job on the planet. What makes the personalities of those that have become our chief executive different from the rest of us 9 to 5ers? While any job worth doing is going to present challenges, I have to think that those facing the President of the United States might be a little more daunting than what most of us struggle with. It also would seem that since so many presidents have struggled with emotional difficulties before and after obtaining the office that they just might be made out of sterner stuff than the rest of us.
Here’s some of the psychiatrists findings:
⦁ John Adams may have suffered from bipolar depression. Adams possessed incredible energy and was prone to long bouts isolative behavior and depression that he managed by walking as much as 6 miles per day. Hardly a fitness fanatic, his critics derisively referred to him as “His Rotundity” because of his overweight and portly appearance
⦁ Thomas Jefferson was virtually a social phobic. Much of what we know about Jefferson came from things that he wrote. He never gave a major speech as President of the United States, as he was incredibly shy in public and self-conscious about his rather high-pitched, almost effeminate voice. The words that we remember as coming from Thomas Jefferson, such as the Declaration of Independence, were those that were carefully penned as Jefferson worked in isolation.
⦁ James Madison exhibited behavior consistent with major depressive disorder. He struggled greatly with these emotions as he waged the very unpopular War of 1812.
⦁ John Quincy Adams struggled with depression as well as the challenge of being the son of one of our nation’s founding fathers, John Adams. A one term president, considered to be a failure at the time, he later became what most historians consider the most effective Secretary of State our nation ever had.
⦁ Franklin Pierce suffered from depression prior to taking office, suffered posttraumatic stress disorder from witnessing the death of his son who was killed after being struck by a train, and drank alcoholically during his one term in office.
⦁ Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression so severe that twice before he held office his friends had him on suicide watch, fearful that he would take his own life. His depression was so severe at times that it was accompanied by psychotic features.
⦁ Ulysses Grant suffered from social phobia, probably ADHD, and was an alcoholic. The successful periods of his life occurred during times when he had relative sobriety and was able to harness his potential.
⦁ James Garfield suffered from depression, possibly exacerbated by his service during the Civil War.
⦁ Rutherford B Hayes, like Garfield a Civil War veteran, suffered from episodes of depression consistent with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder.
⦁ Theodore Roosevelt showed signs of bipolar disorder. Of all the presidents analyzed, his behavior and lifestyle was the most obvious to diagnose. Prone to episodes of incredible and boundless energy, Roosevelt was also capable of plunging into weeks of deep and dark despair. Hypomanic at baseline, Roosevelt was able to parlay this disorder into one of the most charismatic leaders in the history of the Oval Office. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/teddy-roosevelt-personal-responsibility/ )
⦁ William Howard Taft suffered from sleep apnea to such a degree that he frequently fell asleep during staff meetings in mid conversation. Standing 5 foot 11 and weighing 350 pounds, he was prone to eating heavily while under stress, evidenced by his 80 pound weight loss in less than a year after he left the office.
⦁ Woodrow Wilson was prone to depression and suffered from generalized anxiety disorder. An academic, Wilson, much like Jefferson, found himself far more able to communicate in the written word than in speech.
⦁ Calvin Coolidge suffered from depressive symptoms, social phobia, and hypochondriasis. His tendency towards pithy comments and brief speeches is a well-known indicator of his social phobia. He engaged in a number of odd practices which he believed were good for his health, such as massaging handfuls of mayonnaise into his scalp daily.
⦁ Herbert Hoover, president when the Stock Market crashed in 1929 sparked the Great Depression, ironically showed signs of depression himself.
⦁ Dwight Eisenhower was diagnosed with depression by his personal physician in 1955 after a heart attack which he suffered while president. During that time is vice president, Richard Nixon, temporarily assume the office.
⦁ Lyndon Johnson suffered from bipolar disorder. Virtually all of the psychiatrists who participated in this study were in agreement that Johnson clearly had the diagnosis. Capable of incredible focus and energy, Johnson also could quite quickly slip into the depths of despair. His abrupt decision to not run for re-election in 1968 more than likely occurred at the beginning of a depressive episode.
⦁ Richard Nixon, if not an alcoholic, clearly drank problematically and alcoholically during the Watergate scandal which brought down his presidency. His all-night drinking episodes may have fueled the paranoid ideation that he displayed during the national outrage which questioned his integrity and character.
⦁ Bill Clinton, while not subject to the 2006 study, is thought by many mental health professionals to be someone who suffer from periods of hypomania that are consistent with a diagnosis of bipolar II. This may explain his boundless energy as well as some poor choices made in his personal life.
⦁ George W Bush, also not subject to the study, may have suffered from ADHD. This could explain his relative lack of success as a young man, his driving under the influence charges in his 20s, and occasional poor word selection when speaking in public. Rather than being ridiculed, he should be viewed as someone who overcame a lot of youthful indiscretions to become the president of the United States.
As Americans, we enjoy the privilege of criticizing and lampooning those that hold the highest political position the nation has. The 2006 Duke University cited above could be sarcastically viewed as an indictment of our electoral process and evidence of the American voting public’s being fooled by the electoral process. It is, however, more accurately a testament to the incredible resilience and resolve of the kind of person who overcomes incredible difficulties to attain and maintain lofty goals. Many of these presidents would not be electable today due to the overwhelming and microscopic scrutiny that current candidates go through on their way to the November elections. Would you vote for the formerly suicidal Abraham Lincoln, the manic Theodore Roosevelt, or for the frequently intoxicated Ulysses S Grant? Probably not. One can only imagine what the comedians of the modern era would have to say about the behavior of these great Americans.
The 2006 study did not come to any conclusions, they merely identified characteristics American presidents had that indicated mental illness. Consider the character, resilience, and resolve of these men and what they overcame. Clearly these men were made out of stronger stuff than most of us. However you vote next year, whoever you decide to to support, consider these former presidents before you decide to to ridicule the opposition. The lives of these men are a reminder to all of us that, in many cases, the stigma and fears surrounding mental illness are quite often way overblown and exaggerated.
“When one side only of a story is heard and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it insensibly.” – George Washington
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