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1444West Wing Blues: It's Lonely at the Top

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  • Ram Lau
    Feb 14, 2006
      West Wing Blues: It's Lonely at the Top

      As a young man, Abraham Lincoln experienced bouts of despair so
      profound that friends were concerned he might commit suicide.

      Ulysses S. Grant, the general under Lincoln who later rose to the
      presidency, often avoided social occasions and retreated into alcohol.

      All told, almost half of American presidents from 1789 to 1974 had
      suffered from a mental illness at some point in life, according to a
      recent analysis of biographical sources by psychiatrists at Duke
      University Medical Center. And more than half of those presidents, the
      study found, struggled with their symptoms — most often depression —
      while in office.

      "What is hopeful about this is that it is evidence that people can
      suffer from depression or other mental problems and still function at
      a presidential level, if not at their best," said Dr. Jonathan
      Davidson, who, along with Dr. Kathryn Connor and Dr. Marvin Swartz,
      cataloged symptoms from presidential papers and biographies, and
      identified those disabling enough to qualify as disorders. They
      reported their findings in the current issue of The Journal of Nervous
      and Mental Disease.

      The authors acknowledge the hazards and uncertainties of diagnosing
      from such a distance. But the lifetime rate of mental illness they
      found in these 37 presidents is identical to that found in some
      surveys of the American population.

      In some cases, they included problems not usually thought of as mental
      disorders: William Howard Taft, the 27th president, for example,
      suffered from difficulty breathing while asleep — most likely because
      of a disorder known as sleep apnea — and often dozed off during
      important meetings.

      In most cases the disorders recall the men: the indefatigable Theodore
      Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson showed symptoms of the manic energy
      that characterizes bipolar disorder; Richard Nixon drank heavily
      through the Watergate period; and Calvin Coolidge plunged into a pit
      of depression after his teenage son died of an infection.

      The report also serves as a caution against judging troubled souls too
      early. "To contemporaries well acquainted with Madison, Hayes, Grant
      and Wilson," the authors write, "it must have appeared that, as young
      men, these individuals were doing very little with their lives."
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