A First-Rate Madness:
Uncovering the Links between Leadership and Mental Illness
By Nasir Ghaemi, M. D.
Review by John E. Wade II
REVIEW Part II
One of my personal heroes is Winston Churchill, who stood staunchly during World War II, inspiring Britain and the Allies to achieve their ultimate victory over Adolf Hitler, another figure examined in the book. The author writes, “I believe that Churchill’s severe recurrent depressive episodes heightened his ability to realistically assess the threat that Germany posed.”
In describing Churchill from a psychiatric point of view, the author writes that Churchill “… meets the official definition of bipolar disorder, type II (hypomania alternating with severe depression). It is also possible that he had more severe manic episodes, which we cannot fully document, yet had that been the case he would meet the diagnostic definition of standard bipolar disorder (also called type I).”
His mind never stopped. Churchill was amazingly productive, aside from serving as minister and prime minister for decades; he wrote forty-three books in seventy-two volumes. Because Churchill had battled illness and despair his whole life, he could and did convey to others that despair could be overcome, even in the bleak period of 1940. He called his depression his “Black Dog.” It’s as if he suffered and gained what the author called “depressive realism,” allowing him to recognize as early as October, 1930, the Hitler menace and to lead when his deep fears were realized.
Abraham Lincoln also demonstrated the worthwhile impact of depression and how it fostered empathy and tenacity. Lincoln had a history of depression, including suicidal thoughts, telling a fellow politician that he “was the victim of terrible melancholy” sometimes, so he never carried a pocketknife because he couldn’t trust himself with it. Lincoln sought compromise, but “after Fort Sumter, he realized that compromise was lost.” He said slavery was the “… greatest wrong inflicted on any people.”
There have been a few leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who had intently experienced depression, and out of sheer force of will made it a part of their political method. The author states that he believes the “politics of radical empathy … is the psychological underpinning of non-violent resistance. Depression reveals the truth of empathy, and empathy, in turn, engenders unexpected powers of leadership.”
The author explains that “Emotional empathy, produced by severe depressive episodes, may prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ points of view.” In my words, depression can produce a humble spirit that exudes kindness.
Both Gandhi and King suffered depression and yet were heroes in peace as Winston Churchill was a champion in wartime.
Dr. Poussaint gave a first-hand account, “King had a heartlessness about him … he set the pace in marches, he was strolling, not walking fast, nor slow; but strolling, and always right in the front line, which put him at risk. Anyone could run out from the bushes and shoot him.” King was not chronically depressed but “… experienced at least three probable depressive episodes in the beginning, middle and end of his life, the first associated with suicide attempts.”
The author does state, “No form of waging conflict always wins.” Radical empathy in a non-violent way won the day for Gandhi and King, whereas Churchill and the Allies won World War II through warfare.
Humankind must learn to integrate nations, economies, investments, and communications, even religions in ways that reduce and eventually eliminate conflict.