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5 Famous People In History Who Suffered From Mental Illness

Historical Figures with Psychological Issues

  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Mary Todd Lincoln
  • Michelangelo
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Virginia Woolf

There’s a great deal of speculation about famous people with mental illness and the wellspring from which many historical geniuses draw their energy and inspiration. While this curiosity is far-reaching and the public is often tempted to ascribe every famous historical figure with one or more mental disorders, a scholarly inquiry is more restrained. Usually, via the combined work of biographers and trained mental health professionals, a person of historical import is examined, and potential disorders or diseases are ascribed posthumously.

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1. Ludwig van Beethoven

In addition to potential lead poisoning via the copious amounts of wine he consumed and several other illnesses that tormented him, Beethoven may have suffered from bipolar depression. While he would find himself in good company, since it’s highly likely that many artists, writers, and musicians experience similar mental symptoms, it certainly didn’t ease his path through life. According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, he was known to experience intense mood swings, characterized by explosive fits of temper and energetic activity and long bouts of lethargy and melancholy. Through his music, one can almost map the progressions of these manic and depressive cycles.

2. Mary Todd Lincoln

It’s rare that women are included in these lists of famous historical people with psychological disorders. That’s mainly due to historical and medical biases that marginalize women in general and their symptoms specifically. But while it’s been speculated that Mary suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, there may be other explanations. She was tried for insanity in an era in which women were believed to suffer hysteria—a literal wandering of the uterus about the body. It’s also possible that she suffered from a condition known as pernicious anemia, caused by a severe B-12 deficiency. This, in turn, impacts both the mental and physical processes of the individual.

3. Michelangelo

Perhaps one of the favored posthumous diagnoses of psychosis or mental disorder, the artist’s prolific works and tempestuous dynamics with his patrons seem to indicate a potential case of Asperger’s Syndrome. Also called “high-functioning autism,” this particular mental health issue usually presents with monomaniacal focus, withdrawal from social peers, and a disdain for most societal norms. While OCD or depression might explain some of his various habits, some scholars feel that only Asperger’s captures the suite of characteristics he exhibited in his lifetime.

4. Abraham Lincoln

While there is much speculation about Mary Lincoln’s cause of illness, biographical research paints a clear picture of Abraham’s depression. Reporting for NPR, Robert Siegel spoke with a prominent biographer of Lincoln, Joshua Wolf Shenk. Shenk himself noted that both an examination of Lincoln’s letters and detailed analysis of how those closest to him perceived him paint a lugubrious portrait. A contemporary descriptor of Melancholia is often interpreted as clinical depression since it denotes a prolonged state of being, rather than a passing mood. Among most famous people with mental illness, Lincoln is one of the most easily assessed. Not only was his depression evident to all who knew him, but he occupied a high profile political position and met a tragic end.

5. Virginia Woolf

Most would presume that her suicide and its profoundly premeditated nature present a clear case of mental distress, but Woolf’s family history deepens the tragedy of her Bipolar Depression. Because its manifestation is often linked to both childhood trauma as well as a genetic predisposition, many people can present with symptoms. Even though psychology and psychiatry were still in relatively nascent phases at the time, Woolf’s family tree is studded with evidence of psychosis, then referred to as “cyclothymic.” It appears that her paternal grandfather, father, and both siblings and half-siblings showed signs of substantial psychosis. Her mother was diagnosed as depressed when Virginia was still a young girl. Even if she had exhibited none of the genetic signals of the disorder, for her to witness how such illnesses impacted her family would be considered traumatic.

In many cases, posthumously diagnosing individuals with psychosis is a tricky proposition. Because psychology is a relatively new realm of study and is entirely dependent in many cases upon the culture in which it’s practiced, most scholars avoid such speculation. However, in some instances when psychoses have organic roots, such as may be in Mary Todd Lincoln and Michelangelo’s cases, the prediction takes on a more critical note. Then, it’s not merely curiosity about famous people with mental illness, but a matter of redress and posthumous justice.

Source: New England Journal of Medicine

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