What comes to mind when you think about the first 37 U.S. presidents? Perhaps it’s Honest Abe’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address, or the story of the portly William Howard Taft getting stuck in the White House bathtub. Or maybe it’s Lyndon B. Johnson’s passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It’s likely, however, that you don’t equate these historical figures with anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, social phobia and alcoholism. But, as it turns out, mental illness is a significant part of presidential history.
Nearly half of American presidents from 1789 to 1974 — and this includes two of the four U.S. leaders featured on the iconic Mount Rushmore — met the criteria for a psychiatric disorder as set forth by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the leading reference manual for mental health professionals. That’s according to an analysis of presidential biographies conducted by psychiatrists at Duke University Medical Center.
The study, published in 2006 in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, found that depression (24%), anxiety (8%), bipolar disorder (8%) and alcohol abuse/dependence (8%) were the most common mental illnesses afflicting the country’s first 37 presidents (no similar analysis has been done on POTUSes 38 to 44). And more than half of these men struggled to manage their symptoms — mostly depression — while also leading the country, the researchers found.
Mark Will-Weber, author of Mint Juleps with Teddy Roosevelt: The Complete History of Presidential Drinking, looked at two centuries of drinking patterns in the White House and discovered that many of those early presidents (and beyond) also showed signs of alcoholism. Franklin Pierce (14th), who died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 65, “once took the temperance pledge (prior to becoming president) in an effort to quit, but started drinking again as an officer in the Mexican War in 1845,” Will-Weber notes. “[Ulysses S.] Grant [18th] and Richard Nixon [37th] both had ‘low tolerance’ and episodic moments where alcohol affected them in negative ways,” he adds. “Grant allegedly fell off his horse (while intoxicated) at a military parade in New Orleans, and according to some of his aides, Nixon once was unable to field an important phone call from the British Prime Minister concerning the Suez Crisis because he was ‘loaded.’ ”
On the flip side, Will-Weber also discovered that presidents who had alcoholic fathers, including Ronald Reagan (40th) and Barack Obama (44th), as well as Bill Clinton (42nd) whose stepfather was an alcoholic, were and have been more moderate in their own consumption. “Jimmy Carter (39th), due to his brother Billy Carter’s alcoholism, also saw first-hand the damages that alcohol abuse could do,” adds Will-Weber.
Here’s a look at some of the presidents and the mental disorders they were, or may have been, affected by:
- Depression: James Madison (4th), John Quincy Adams (6th), Franklin Pierce (14th). Abraham Lincoln (16th) suffered a depression so severe that friends feared he’d commit suicide. Calvin Coolidge (30th) fell into a bout of depression after the loss of his teenage son, who died suddenly of sepsis, a fatal condition caused by a staph infection.
- Social Phobia: Thomas Jefferson (3rd), Grant and Calvin Coolidge (30th). Grant also retreated into alcohol.
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Woodrow Wilson (28th)
- Mania: Theodore Roosevelt (26th) and Lyndon B. Johnson (36th) displayed manic energy, an indicator of bipolar disorder.
Also included in the study were conditions that aren’t seen as mental disorders but can affect how the brain functions. For example, Taft, the country’s rotund 27th president, was suspected of having sleep apnea, which can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness (not ideal during important foreign policy and budget meetings) and declines in thinking skills and the ability to relate to others (though historians describe Taft as generally social, warm-hearted and kind).
It’s easy to joke that you probably need to be drunk or mentally ill to even want to be president, but there’s a much more reassuring takeaway from the study: These findings should help give those with a mental disorder, including addiction, more reason to believe that their illness needn’t hold them back. “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,” Jonathan Davidson, M.D., one of the psychiatrists involved in the 2006 study and now emeritus professor in the department of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, told The New York Times. And who are we to argue with history?