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An American Icon and Depression: Abraham Lincoln

Abraham LincolnEveryone knows that Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was the 16th President of the United States, but what is less commonly known is that Lincoln lived with major depression.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Lincoln, David Herbert Donald wrote that Lincoln experienced depressive episodes after major life events, including the death of his first love, a broken engagement and the Second Battle of Bull Run.

“Was Lincoln's melancholy a ‘clinical depression?’ Yes—as far as that concept goes,” Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote in his 2005 book Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. “Certainly his condition in the summer of 1835 matches what the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders labels a major depressive episode. Such an episode is characterized by depressed mood, a marked decrease in pleasure, or both, for at least two weeks, and symptoms such as agitation, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of death or suicide. Five and a half years later…Lincoln broke down again, and together these episodes suffice for modern clinicians to make an assessment of recurrent major depression.”

Though Lincoln battled depression, it never stopped him from changing the world and shaping American history. During his two presidential terms, Lincoln strategized behind the Civil War and saw victory at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, ended slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation and a Constitutional amendment and played a pivotal role in the reconstruction of the United States. (He also made Thanksgiving a national holiday.)

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in 1865 at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., where Booth snuck up behind him and shot him at point-blank range in the head. After being in a coma for nine hours, Lincoln died on April 15, 1865.

What’s important today is that we see Lincoln for the man he was. His mental illness was just one piece of a whole person—a person who changed the world and improved lives for others. Lincoln is an icon remembered for his vision and strength.


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