An Irish woman's social, political and domestic commentary
Friday, September 23, 2005  

Lincoln and Depression

Here are some extracts from The Atlantic's feature on Abraham Lincoln and his lifelong battle with depression. The author uses accounts of the time to tell the story of how his illness was viewed. It's compassionate and fascinating.

"Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a "character issue"—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation...."

In 1835 he had his first major bout when a woman it is thought he loved called Ann Rutledge died. He reacted badly.

"Indeed, the villagers' anxiety was intense, both for Lincoln's immediate safety and for his long-term mental health. Lincoln "told Me that he felt like Committing Suicide often," remembered Mentor Graham, a schoolteacher, and his neighbors mobilized to keep him safe. One friend recalled, "Mr Lincolns friends … were Compelled to keep watch and ward over Mr Lincoln, he being from the sudden shock somewhat temporarily deranged. We watched during storms—fogs—damp gloomy weather … for fear of an accident." Some villagers worried that he'd end up insane. After several weeks an older couple in the area took him into their home. Bowling Green, the large, merry justice of the peace, and his wife, Nancy, took care of Lincoln for a week or two. When he had improved somewhat, they let him go, but he was, Mrs. Green said, "quite melancholy for months."

Weren't they great friends to watch over him so well? I am not sure such compassion would exist now.

And I like this analysis:

" the nineteenth-century conception of melancholy, genius and gloom were often part of the same overall picture. True, a person with a melancholy temperament had been fated with an awful burden—but also, in Lord Byron's phrase, with a "fearful gift." The burden was a sadness and despair that could tip into a state of disease. But the gift was a capacity for depth and wisdom."

Later on the author refers to the 1979 study about depression which I had read somewhere before:

"Abramson and Alloy pointed to a phenomenon called "depressive realism," or the "sadder but wiser" effect. Though psychiatry had long equated mental health with clear thinking, it turns out that happiness is often characterized by muddy inaccuracies. "Much research suggests," Alloy has written, "that when they are not depressed, people are highly vulnerable to illusions, including unrealistic optimism, overestimation of themselves, and an exaggerated sense of their capacity to control events. The same research indicates that depressed people's perceptions and judgments are often less biased."

Depressed people have the ability to see through sham and fakery. If they can respond as Linclon did by staring pain in the eye and finding a way to overcome it, they can achieve great things. These days of course they are dosed with Prozac or abandoned.

posted by Sarah | 21:10 0 comments
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