Historical Figures Who Struggled With Depression

Many creative types and political figures have a higher propensity to suffer from mental health issues. This includes famous historical figures. Studies have shown that some of these geniuses and people who seek public office might have struggled with these disorders. Historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, and Isaac Newton all had battles with depression. 

Some were able to pull themselves out of their emotional fragility, while others struggled for years to find balance in their lives. From world leaders to authors and painters, many historical figures were in a constant bout with mental illness.


  • Emily Dickinson's Mood Changed Depending On The Season
    Photo: William C. North / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Many scholars have long believed poet Emily Dickinson suffered from some kind of mood disorder. Some think she may have been manic depressive, while others think she suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

    Dickinson's mood appeared to shift depending on the season. Professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Hawaii School of Medicine in Honolulu John F. McDermott examined her productivity and determined she was more prolific in spring and summer compared to winter, suggesting she had the winter blues. 

    A person diagnosed with SAD is affected by the amount of sunlight available each day. How did Dickinson's mood affect her work? She produced 1,800 poems, many of which focused on death and immortality. 

  • Abraham Lincoln Channeled His Despair To Help Others
    Photo: Alexander Gardner / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Friends of Abraham Lincoln were well aware of his bouts of melancholy. He was prone to crying in public, and - as a young man - mentioned suicide on more than one occasion. In order get through life on a day-to-day basis, he often told jokes or strange stories at inappropriate times. His law partner William Herndon once noted that Lincoln's "melancholy dripped from him as he walked." Scholars and modern clinicians agree that Lincoln suffered from depression. He had documented breakdowns in 1935 and 1940 in which he displayed symptoms such as fatigue, thoughts of death, and feelings of worthlessness. A poem published in 1838, "The Suicide's Soliloquy," has been attributed to Lincoln. One stanza reads:

    Hell! What is hell to one like me
      Who pleasures never knew;
    By friends consigned to misery,
      By hope deserted too?

    Lincoln sought help from a doctor in 1841, and focusing on his law work helped boost him during his bad spells. In 1854, he channeled his energy into joining the fight against slavery. He was so passionate about the cause that when he spoke, the audience could feel his pain. Lincoln understood how it felt to struggle and boldly advocated for a free society. He was able to tap into his despair to become a champion for others.

    While burdened by responsibility when he became president, Lincoln carried on and trusted in God to move him forward. He never overcame his melancholy; he simply used it as fuel to fight injustices and led the nation into a positive direction.

  • Virginia Woolf Had Several Teeth Pulled To Cure Her Depression
    Photo: George Charles Beresford / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In June 1922, Virginia Woolf’s psychiatrist, George Savage, told the writer to have three of her teeth removed because he believed her mental illness was caused by an infection in her mouth. He also believed a fever she had been enduring all summer was caused by a problem with her teeth. Wolfe was forced to wear false teeth, and she wrote about the experience in her diary:

    The depression of a return from Rodmell is always acute. Perhaps this continued temperature – I have lost three teeth in vain – may be some sort of cause for my ups & downs. Yet the days at Rodmell passed smoothly.

    Some experts believe she was manic depressive. On at least one occasion she referred to her depression as the "glooms" and believed the only way she could go on in life was by writing.

    She struggled with doctors' misdiagnoses for years, which may have caused her to refuse medical treatment when she had a mental breakdown in 1941. Her husband was able to persuade her to see a doctor, but Woolfe drowned herself the following morning. She was 59.

  • Sigmund Freud Took Cocaine To Feel Better
    Photo: Max Halberstadt / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Sigmund Freud struggled with depression and occasional anxiety attacks, according to Ernest Jones, author of The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. The psychoanalyst turned to cocaine in order to make himself feel better. Freud noted that he took it in small doses to combat "against depression and against indigestion, and with the most brilliant success."

    Unfortunately, cocaine wasn't the power drug Freud hoped it would be. What finally took the man out of his depression was recognition and validation from his peers. Freud's emotional state was boosted after he became an authority in the psychoanalysis, dreams, and sexuality fields. It's not uncommon for some people to be lifted from a depressive state when the community around them makes them feel worthwhile.