The presence of mental health problems has been highly stigmatised throughout history , often suffering those who suffered from mental disorders not only the effects of these but also a great rejection by society.
Problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, addictions or schizophrenia are not a new phenomenon, but have been present throughout history. And although sometimes these problems are invisible and hidden, the truth is that even great figures in history have experienced them in their flesh.
With a view to improving awareness and normalisation of mental health problems, throughout this article we will review several historical figures who presented mental disorders , or whose behaviour has been attributed to them.
Historical figures who presented mental disorders
In the following lines we will see about twenty historical characters who suffered from mental disorders, among whom we can find highly known names from literature, art or science .
Many of them were diagnosed with modern methods, while in other cases it is considered that they suffered through the analysis of their behavior or the testimonies or written records of the time they lived.
However, it is necessary to take into account that some of the figures have been attributed with some disorder of which there is no total certainty that they had: it is not possible to diagnose someone who cannot be evaluated and for whom there is not enough information.
Even in some cases where there was a medical diagnosis, it is important to take into account the limitations of the time in which they lived may alter the conclusions that can be drawn, as well as what at a certain time was or was not considered a mental disorder.
Finally, it should be noted that many diagnostic labels have changed over time or even disappeared or have been divided into different alterations, so that what was diagnosed then may be very different from what would be considered today.
1. Martin Luther King
Figures as influential as Martin Luther King also suffered serious problems. In the case of this pastor and political activist, who fought against racial segregation and for equality between whites and blacks, throughout his life he suffered various episodes of depression .
In his youth, some of them led to several suicide attempts after the death of his grandmother, but he managed to overcome them. He also suffered them during his time as a political activist, something that did not stop him from fighting for civil rights.
Of course, the context of someone who lives constantly besieged by pressure groups and even gangs of organized violence greatly favors the emergence of disorders such as depression; we should not understand this phenomenon as something that arises spontaneously in the individual.
2. Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens is another great author who has suffered some kind of psychological problem throughout his life.
This author, according to several researchers, suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobia to dirt .
3. Abraham Lincoln
One of the most admired presidents of the United States is Abraham Lincoln, famous among other achievements for abolishing slavery and ending the American Civil War. But although his achievements were many, the 16th president of the United States had a difficult life marked by the death of many of his loved ones .
He was known for his melancholic thinking, and according to various researchers he suffered from recurrent depression for much of his life, manifesting on various occasions the presence of thoughts of death and suicide (although he would achieve a certain improvement over the years).
4. Salvador Dalí
This great artist and one of the great representatives of surrealism suffered towards the end of his life from Parkinson’s disease, as well as from a depression derived not only from this condition but also from the death of his muse, Gala Éluard Dalí .
5. Robert Schumann
One of the most important German composers of Romanticism, Robert Schumann suffered from what was then called early dementia, later known as schizophrenia . He saw visions related to religious figures, both angelic and demonic. He was hospitalized for a time.
Today, however, it is considered more likely that he suffered from a bipolar disorder with psychotic symptoms: he had periods when he suffered from depressive episodes, although at other times he was exhaustively and passionately involved in making highly valuable compositions (probably in manic or hypomanic episodes).
6. Iósif Stalin
This Russian dictator, although he played a major role in defeating the Nazis in World War II, is also responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians, political dissidents and even allies, during their notorious purges.
And although at present we cannot make a firm diagnosis as we have few data regarding his physical and mental health, the existing data seem to reflect the existence of a high level of paranoia , which possibly contributed to many of these purges: the dictator ordered the death or imprisonment of a large number of people, including one of his personal guards or different doctors who treated him and diagnosed him with different ailments (including atherosclerosis).
In fact, neurophysiologist and psychiatrist Vladimir Bekhterev went so far as to diagnose him and attempt to treat severe paranoia. Two days later the said neurologist and psychiatrist turned up dead.
7. Marilyn Monroe
Considered one of the most attractive women in the world, and often underestimated despite being one of the most intelligent celebrities of the time, this well-known actress suffered from different difficulties throughout her life , which led her to suffer from problems such as severe depression and anxiety, which led her to be temporarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
He also developed a problematic relationship with alcohol and other substances.
8. Ronald Reagan
This well-known president of the United States suffered towards the end of his life from one of the most cruel and frequent neurodegenerative diseases in the elderly: Alzheimer’s disease .
Gradually, the former president lost his powers and was even unable to recognize his loved ones.
9. Franz Kafka
Despite having few published works, Kafka is one of the classic authors of world literature. The author among other great works of The Metamorphosis also suffered from different mental health problems.
Throughout his life , sleep disorders were frequent, specifically a very recurrent insomnia .
He is also considered to have suffered from depression, as well as social phobia and anxiety. While there is no absolute agreement, based on his works, the records that exist regarding his behavior and some of the author’s own notes have led some authors to believe that the author may have suffered from schizoid personality disorder.
10. Elizabeth of Bavaria
Elizabeth of Bavaria, also known as Sissí, was one of the last great empresses of Europe , specifically of Austria and Hungary.
This powerful woman, of great intelligence and culture and known for her rebelliousness, also suffered serious disorders throughout her life.
The empress, who would have severe difficulties and conflicts with her in-laws and with the excessive pomposity, conservatism and rigidity of life at court, suffered frequent depressions, especially after the death of her son. She used cocaine as an antidepressant, which was common at the time.
Among its various alterations, one of the most notable was that of its food problems. The empress was very concerned about keeping her weight under control, eating poorly and doing strenuous exercise.
It is considered that he suffered from bulimia and anorexia nervosa , which greatly deteriorated his health and impaired his depressive state.
11. Edgar Allan Poe
If we think of an author especially known for his horror stories and gothic-style novels, probably one of the first names that will come to mind will be Edgar Allan Poe.
This author had a difficult and tortuous life, marked by losses , and suffered deep depressions (especially after the death of his wife from tuberculosis), as well as dependence on alcohol and other substances such as opium.
The presence of bipolar disorder is not ruled out as sudden changes in mood have been reported, although the shift to mania was mainly caused by alcohol consumption.
There was also speculation during his lifetime about the possible existence of epilepsy. His suffering and discomfort can be seen in his work, which is often pessimistic about life.
12. Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes is an especially relevant historical figure in the field of aviation, being a pioneer who designed and implemented a large number of improvements that allowed the creation and inspired the creation of various types and models of aircraft (in fact, he designed the largest seaplane of his time, although it would never be used).
He was also a skilled aviator and possibly the richest man of his generation (he is considered the first billionaire).
As expressed in the film based on his life, The Aviator , this man suffered from a severe obsessive-compulsive disorder , with obsessions and compulsions linked to the fear of germs.
13. Elvis Presley
The king of rock also had mental health problems. Specifically, this great musician suffered from a significant addiction to various psychoactive substances , such as cocaine, amphetamines and barbiturates, used to treat the depression he suffered from.
14. Nikola Tesla
This very important scientist, especially known for his work in the field of electromagnetism (thanks to which we can have electric light by means of alternating current, having developed the first induction of this type of current) and inventor of the generator that bears his name, is also another of the great historical figures who suffered psychic alterations.
Specifically, the existing data seem to indicate that today he could have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, apparently of a numerological type . He carried out a large number of compulsive behaviors and rituals, generally linked to the number three and its multiples.
He also suffered from visual hallucinations , as well as phobia of germs and jewelry.
15. Winston Churchill
The arch-rivals of the British prime minister, first lord of the admiralty and a key figure in the Allied Forces during the time of World War II (as well as a Nobel Prize winner in literature), also suffered from one of the most common mental disorders even today: major depression (then melancholy).
Throughout his life, this politician suffered different severe depressive episodes which he called his “black dog” , with which he often had to fight. He also took refuge in alcohol. In spite of this, he managed to lead a country with a strong leadership in a turbulent time.
16. Edvard Munch
The painter of the famous painting “The Scream” is another important figure in the art world who suffered from mental problems. Specifically, he was hospitalized on numerous occasions for problems such as alcoholism, affective problems of a depressive nature and hallucinations.
Munch himself admitted that his problems were part of his art , and even made descriptions of the hallucinations he suffered from (the painting of “El grito” is inspired by one).
The exact condition of this painter is debated, but mainly the possible presence of schizophrenia (an illness diagnosed in one of his sisters), depression with psychotic symptoms or bipolar disorder is discussed.
17. Ernst Hemingway
One of the great authors of the 20th century and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Ernst Hemingway also suffered from a severe mental health problem. Specifically, the author of The Old Man and the Sea suffered major depression, triggered by various problems throughout his life .
The author tried to treat himself and underwent electroconvulsive therapy, but in his case it was not effective and also caused him memory impairment. He eventually committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.
18. Vincent Van Gogh
One of the best known painters of post-impressionism and the one who is most aware of the presence of psychic alterations is Vincent Van Gogh. This artist, author of great paintings such as La noche estrellada or Los estibadores de Arlés , suffered serious mental problems that led him to tear off part of his earlobe after a fight with an acquaintance.
The painter went so far as to voluntarily confine himself to several psychiatric hospitals (at that time, asylums).
There are many diagnoses assigned to him, some of them linking his alterations to medical illnesses and others blaming them on disorders such as epilepsy (which he was diagnosed with), alcoholism or schizophrenia (there is also talk of an intermittent psychosis).
However, one of the most frequent explanations and diagnoses is related to the presence of bipolar disorder .
19. Virginia Woolf
This great writer and literary critic of British origin is known for breaking with the realism of her time to find a form of expression centred on the inner monologue in which to achieve a balance between the rational and the irrational, for being one of the most relevant figures of British modernism and for exploring and defending women’s rights (being a relevant figure of feminism).
The author of Mrs. Dalloway , Las olas or Orlando , among other works, suffered numerous depressive episodes throughout her life along with other episodes in which her moods changed radically: different experts consider that this important figure suffered from a bipolar disorder.
20. John Nash
One of the most recent historical figures (whose death occurred during 2015) on this list is the 1994 Nobel Laureate in Economics, John Forbes Nash.
This great mathematician of American origin, who was awarded for his contributions in economics (among them he contributed greatly to the development of game theory) and whose story inspired the well-known novel and film , was initially diagnosed with paranoia and later with paranoid schizophrenia at McLean Hospital.
This author felt that he was the victim of a conspiracy perpetrated by the Soviet Union and the Communists, and he suffered from auditory hallucinations. For a time he considered himself a messenger, a religious figure who was being persecuted by communists from the Soviet Union and the Vatican.
He also had ideas that men with red ties were communists against him, as well as that the New York Times reflected coded alien messages, and he had various problems with behavior that was considered erratic and regressive.
After several apparently unsuccessful treatments, and as he grew older and struggled with his hallucinations, delusions and other symptoms, he gradually made a partial recovery that allowed him to return to work in research and teaching and even quit treatment (although despite what the literature seems to show, he did not feel fully recovered).
The scientific contributions of this man were many , not only in mathematics but also and is a symbol of hope for many people who see in him a reflection that mental illness need not prevent success.