“Stop calling Trump crazy,” wrote former-Congressman Patrick Kennedy in a recent Washington Post article.
Many people call Republican nominee Donald Trump crazy. Do they do so in the form of a clinical diagnosis? Or is it more in the form of “Uncle Leo” who sits in his darkened bedroom all day drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and shouting out the answers to Alex Trebek?
Everyone, it seems, would know Uncle Leo isn’t crazy in the “time for a straight-jacket” kind of way. Rather, they would understand Uncle Leo is just a little “different” than most.
Kennedy’s article does bring up several good points and it does raise another question:
Did Mental Illness Help Some Great Leaders?
A few of America’s greatest leaders experienced mental health problems according to psychiatrists.
Abe Lincoln, John Kennedy, and Ulysses Grant struggled with mental health issues as did civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatry professor at Tufts University, authored a book about the psychological issues of historical figures. Besides the four American leaders, Ghaemi also denotes British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and India’s Mahatma Gandhi as prominent figures who flourished while dealing with mental health issues.
“Some of those problems can make for greatness,” says Katherine Nordal, head of the American Psychological Association’s professional program.
Inferring someone is dealing with psychiatric issues, “can be a compliment,” said Ghaemi. Ghaemi wrote “A First-Rate Madness” which looked at the connections between leadership and mental illness. Ghaemi used medical and historical records to review historical figures’ potential mental health issues.
Manic depressive people, for example, tend to be more creative and realistic than the more psychologically healthy. “These individuals tend to succeed in times of crisis,” Ghaemi said.
According to Ghaemi, two sets of leaders illustrate this line of thought.
Tecumseh Sherman, a Civil War General for the North, stayed severely depressed and often suicidal, showed to be a successful general in crisis. Grant, who had a drinking problem, excelled during wartime but almost fell apart as a peacetime president according to Ghaemi.
Closer in history, Churchill suffered long bouts of depression and was open about the issue — calling it his “black dog.” Neville Chamberlain, Churchill’s predecessor, was more mentally healthy and didn’t see the threat of Hitler while Churchill thrived in the crisis of wartime and failed in the post-war peace and prosperity boom.
“Psychological history” as Ghaemi labels his discipline, is an inexact science, and some observers feel that Gaehmi is forcing his subjects into characterizations which don’t fit in a convincing way.
Accordinig to Gaehmi, JFK’s success may have been the result of steroid and amphetamine use which caused manic response — and some disregard for the personal consequences. Hitler was a flop because his misuse of methamphetamine made him over manic.
Nixon, often considered successful yet paranoid for much of his presidency was diagnosed as mentally healthy and ill-equipped to deal with the Watergate crisis.
The diagnosis of psychological dysfunction is a problem as there is a lack of formal clinical data of the world leaders. Claims could be biased based on a historian’s political motivations or personal dislikes. Flawed diagnoses may occur in part because of misinterpretations of symptoms, eccentric personality traits or changing definitions of mental health terminology.
Besides Churchill, it is well documented Lincoln experienced bouts of depression and many clinical psychologists believe Napoleon suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Megalomania.
Regardless, one of Ghaemi’s goals is to tear down the cultural stigma surrounding mental illness. And with that, he and Kennedy may agree.