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M E N T A L S T A T E From presidents to paupers: The state of the psychic nation
Many presidents suffered now-treatable mental illnesses

Date published: 4/23/2006

LEXANDRIA--Few Americans know that President Abraham Lincoln, the man who held the North together through the bloody days of the Civil War, struggled with depression throughout most of his life. Yet Lincoln was not the only president to deal with mental illness.

A recent Duke University study published in the January issue of the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease found that 18 of 37 U.S. presidents experienced periods of chronic mental illness. They ranged in severity from Woodrow Wilson's anxiety to Richard Nixon's alcohol abuse to Teddy Roosevelt's bipolar disorder.

The job of our nation's leader is stressful, but for some of the presidents studied, their conditions existed long before their political careers and were not caused by the rigors of office.

Indeed, Dr. Jonathan Davidson and his co-authors found that the prevalence of mental illness in 49 percent of the presidents studied actually reflected national disease rates in the general population at the time.

Today, it is estimated that approximately one in five Americans has a diagnosable mental health problem. However, despite the fact that mental illnesses are common and highly treatable, all too often individuals who experience these diseases feel ashamed, isolated, and hopeless.

Lincoln's own testimonies that he was "the loneliest man in the world" and "the most miserable man living"--although written more than a century ago--could be those of someone you know among the millions of men, women, and children battling mental illness in this country today. They are mothers, fathers, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, daughters, and sons. They are factory workers and heads of state.

Mental illness does not discriminate based on race, education level, or socioeconomic status--and it is a leading cause of disability in countries around the world.

Depression, one of the most common mental illnesses, affects 19 million Americans and their families and is often expressed as a "down" or depressed mood, and a loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities.

Changes in eating and sleeping habits, feelings of worthlessness, difficulty concentrating, or thoughts of hurting oneself are also symptoms of depression. If you know someone who is exhibiting such symptoms of depression, please encourage them to contact their doctor or health-care provider.

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