Given the impending election, many of us are thinking about Presidents. Abraham Lincoln was certainly a notable president. Though the history books play a significant role in our perception of the “rail-splitter” from Illinois, it often becomes easy for us to forget that Abraham Lincoln was very human. Lincoln led this nation through its worst crisis, while at the same time battling his own internal war of chronic depression.
At the age of 32, Lincoln writes, “I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth. Whether I shall ever better, I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not; to remain as I am is impossible.”
Lincoln scholars have clear evidence that he suffered from depressive episodes beginning in his twenties and lasting throughout the rest of his life.
Depressive disorders affect approximately 18.8 million American adults or about 9.5% of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year, according to the National Institute on Mental Health.
Lincoln was a man with human strengths and frailties. His depression did not define who he was as a person, nor does it define the millions of individuals who suffer from depression every day. Depression is one of the most common and most serious mental health issues facing people today. It is also one of the most treatable.
Lincoln had much cause for sadness throughout his life. His only brother died in infancy. His mother, an aunt, and uncle died from an epidemic when he was nine years of age. Later his sister died. According to mental health professionals, bereavement in childhood can be one of the most significant factors in the development of depressive illness in later life.
As an adult, Lincoln experienced the loss of a close friend and the death of two young sons. As Commander-in-Chief, one can only imagine the emotional toll the Civil War had upon Lincoln and the 680,088 lives that were lost in its cause.
Before the age of psychotherapy and medication, Lincoln learned to live with his depressive disposition, frequently utilizing humor and story-telling to elevate his mood.
We can only speculate what Lincoln would say or do about our current state of political affairs, or even what thoughts he may have towards the new millennium’s understanding of depression and mental health. But now, some 150 years later, Lincoln’s historical persona continues to “belong to the ages.” Abraham Lincoln believed in the human spirit and spoke of the role we must all serve toward one another. This was no more clearly expressed than through Lincoln’s own words, “With malice toward none; with charity for all.”
This blog post was written by Chris J. Tuell, EdD, LPCC-S, LICDC, Lindner Center of HOPE, Clinical Director of Addiction Services; University of Cincinnati, Department of Counseling, Adjunct Professor, Addiction Studies