And a Depressive Shall Lead Them: Famous Statesmen and the Inverse Law of Sanity

A worthy article in The Wall Street Journal by Nassir Ghaemi entitled “Depression in Command,” […]

David Zahl / 8.4.11

A worthy article in The Wall Street Journal by Nassir Ghaemi entitled “Depression in Command,” exploring the mental-health proclivities of great world leaders. Essentially, many of the men who’ve proven particularly adept at leading in/through times of crisis suffered from depression. The two main case studies he cites are Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln. Like most such attempts to discuss the “upside” of depression, Ghaemi flirts with redemptive language, something I’m hesitant to do out of sensitivity to those of us who deal with the condition, i.e. not to diminish their/our pain by suggesting that it’s “for the best.” The suggestion that a non-depressed view of life is an inflated or illusory one is particularly bold but, let’s face it, more true than not. On the other hand, a depressed outlook embraces illusions/projections of its own, particularly in relation to the self. Still, the stuff about sadness producing empathy and strength being found in weakness (2 Cor) is simply too rich not to share, ht WH:

When times are good and the ship of state only needs to sail straight, mentally healthy people function well as political leaders. But in times of crisis and tumult, those who are mentally abnormal, even ill, become the greatest leaders. We might call this the Inverse Law of Sanity…

Abraham Lincoln famously had many depressive episodes, once even needing a suicide watch, and was treated for melancholy by physicians. Mental illness has touched even saintly icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom made suicide attempts in adolescence and had at least three severe depressive episodes in adulthood.

How, then, might the leadership of these extraordinary men have been enhanced by mental illness?

An obvious place to start is with depression, which has been shown to encourage traits of both realism and empathy (though not necessarily in the same individual at the same time)… “Normal” nondepressed persons have what psychologists call “positive illusion”—that is, they possess a mildly high self-regard, a slightly inflated sense of how much they control the world around them.

Mildly depressed people, by contrast, tend to see the world more clearly, more as it is. In one classic study, subjects pressed a button and observed whether it turned on a green light, which was actually controlled by the researchers. Those who had no depressive symptoms consistently overestimated their control over the light; those who had some depressive symptoms realized they had little control.

In this we can see part of the motivation behind the radical politics of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Their goal was not to defeat their opponents but to heal them of their false beliefs. Nonviolent resistance, King believed, was psychiatry for the American soul; it was a psychological cure for racism, not just a political program. And the active ingredient was empathy.

Depression also has been found to correlate with high degrees of empathy, a greater concern for how others think and feel. In one study, severely depressed patients had much higher scores on the standard measures of empathy than did a control group of college students; the more depressed they were, the higher their empathy scores. This was the case even when patients were not currently depressed but had experienced depression in the past. Depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view…

When traditional approaches begin to fail, however, great crisis leaders see new opportunities… They are realistic enough to see painful truths, and when calamity occurs, they can lift up the rest of us.

Their weakness is the secret of their strength.


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