TIME TO RETHINK MENTAL ILLNESS; It's the Stigma Which Would Have Denied Us the Greats of History

The Mirror (London, England), February 10, 2009 | Go to article overview

TIME TO RETHINK MENTAL ILLNESS; It's the Stigma Which Would Have Denied Us the Greats of History


Byline: By ALASTAIR CAMPBELL

WHO was Britain's greatest Prime Minister? Who was America's greatest president?

The answers will be a matter of opinion. But my guess is that a clear majority would answer Winston Churchill to the first question and Abraham Lincoln to the second.

There is something else these two great leaders had in common, though. They were both mentally ill.

That is a very stark statement. It might offend those who do not see beyond Churchill's war hero status, or the political genius of a president who held the United States together through civil war.

Some might think that to say these men had mental health problems is somehow to diminish their stature and their achievements. And therein lies a problem - the stigma and the taboo.

But it is recognised that both had bouts of severe depression - a mental illness.

Churchill had a name for it. Black dog. That sense of deadness that can suddenly envelop the mind, stop it from functioning properly.

Some days, he couldn't rouse himself from his bed.

He drank to excess. Yet he was, by common consent, not just our greatest Prime Minister, but, to many, the greatest Briton.

Lincoln lived and ruled in a very different era. Moody and melancholic were the words applied to his mental condition.

In modern terms, we are again talking about depression. But it did not stop him building the team and taking the difficult steps that would see an end to slavery in his country.

Here is another question. Which eminent British scientist was born on the same day as Lincoln - February 12, 1809?

Charles Darwin, who laid the foundations for the science of evolution and transformed the way people think about the world around them.

Without Darwin's work, it is unlikely mankind would have entered the 21st century having mapped the human genome, developed techniques for understanding genetic conditions or been in a position accurately to pinpoint criminals on the basis of DNA evidence.

It is remarkable that two giants of history should have been born on the same day.

But there is something else they have in common. Mental illness. Darwin struggled with what doctors today would define as "panic disorder" or severe anxiety.

It showed itself in panic attacks, stomach disorders, crippling headaches, skin inflammation, agoraphobia, trembling and heart palpitations.

Darwin's mental torment often left him in floods of tears. He spent 25 years consulting more than 20 doctors in a vain bid to find a cure.

Modern medical experts who have studied Darwin believe the cause of his illnesses, including physical ailments, was rooted in mental illness.

I sometimes wonder how these great historic figures would have fared had they been alive today.

What is beyond doubt is that discrimination against the mentally ill is real. Four out of 10 employers say they would consider taking on someone with a history of mental illness. Great. Or is it? No. Because that means six out of 10 would not.

Let's say Britain had decided to reject Churchill on account of his Black Dog and his drinking.

Would another leader have emerged to lead Britain to victory over the Nazis? These three great men - Churchill, Lincoln, and Darwin - are featured in A World Without, a short report written by historian Nigel Jones and me, which asks how our world would have been different if prominent people had been sidelined because of mental illness.

Everyone in our report left the world a significantly better place. Yet every one of them suffered some form of mental health issue.

Who is the most famous name in the history of nursing? …

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