In Honor of Mental Health Awareness Month: How Depression Shaped the Lives of Four Prominent Figures

Content Warning: This post discusses suicidal ideation and self-harm.

Mental Health Awareness Month dates back to 1949 in the United States, long before the term was in the mainstream vernacular. It began as an outreach campaign by Mental Health America (MHA) to encourage conversations around and provide resources for mental health. As commonplace as mental health discussions are these days, you have to assume that the MHA’s pursuits have been successful.

Still, so many suffer in silence with their mental health. Whether due to a lack of access to interventions, not understanding mental health complexities, or harboring shame over mental health struggles, Mental Health Awareness Month is just as needed now as ever before. With depression rates in the US reaching an all-time high, we must continue these conversations and outreach campaigns that are now 75 years in the making.

The insidiousness of depression requires constant vigilance in this day and age. To be sure, societal factors like socioeconomic status, financial insecurity, and lacking access to healthcare play a huge role in depression, but we also know depression affects people regardless of status or wealth.

To continue the conversation, let’s look at four highly influential figures and their unique struggles with depression: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Lady Gaga, and Jim Carrey.

Abraham Lincoln: Perpetual Melancholia

A man who needs no introduction, Abraham Lincoln was known by those closest to him for his “melancholy.” He was often gloomy and wept easily. Such traits might not seem worthy of a diagnosis, but his many other characteristics hold all the markings of a depressive disorder.

His melancholy dripped from him as he walked” Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, said of the President. Lincoln’s view of the world was quite bleak, and he was known to have considered suicide at different points in his life, including following the untimely death of his close friend, Ann Rutledge. Even as he rose the ranks in his political career, depression was ever-present.

Lincoln’s depression often concerned those in his orbit as well as himself. He sought help from a medical doctor and tried medications, all with minimal (and sometimes, adverse) effects. Sometime before he became president, he seemed to embrace his melancholic tendencies more than despise them. He would indulge them openly by reciting sad poetry and speaking from his pessimistic and bleak world outlook when commenting on political policies.

Speaking from that dark, gloomy perspective wound up being key to Lincoln’s leadership. “His observers could sense the depth of feeling that infused Lincoln’s oratory,” wrote Joshua Wolf Shenk in The Atlantic.

But even as Lincoln’s humble leadership and hardwon wisdom steered a nation from ruin, he never overcame his persistent melancholia. He achieved the greatest heights in his career and experienced the affection of an adoring public. But his life was inextricably marked by depression, even as he led a nation through its darkest times.

Winston Churchill: ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, and His ‘Black Dog’

For some, Winston Churchill’s struggle with mental health is an indisputable fact. For others, it is a matter of contention chalked up to exaggerated recounts of history and even myth. Labels spanning from melancholia to bipolar disorder (called ‘manic-depression’ in Churchill’s day) have been cast on the Prime Minister, citing his reference to his “black dog,” his name for his depressive states, as key evidence of their diagnoses.

To be sure, Churchill was a man with emotional afflictions. He experienced the ups and downs of his career and the war with great heartache, frustration, and difficulty. He also showed many manifestations of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) such as disorganization and being easily distracted except on topics that interested him, which he would focus on deeply, in addition to being energetic, talkative, and impulsive, all from a young age.

Suggestions that Churchill struggled with bipolar disorder are based on his bursts of activity during periods of sleeplessness, his frequent shifts in mood, as well as his ADHD-related traits. Some see this as reason enough to presume bipolar disorder, while others dispute the post-mortem diagnosis.

Churchill, like Lincoln, was a man of great authority with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Whether a diagnosis is to blame for his periods of grief, gloom, and dark moods, or simply the difficulty and intensity of his position and era, is perhaps not for us to know for sure. But Churchill was in touch with and deeply affected by the shadows of life, and his black dogs certainly informed his leadership.

Lady Gaga: “My Biggest Enemy is Me”

When Lady Gaga released her chart-topping, award-winning album Chromatica in the summer of 2020, she was at an all-time high in her career. But in an interview with CBS, she says the album almost didn’t happen due to her chronic depression.

“I totally gave up on myself.” she said in the interview, “I hated being famous, I hated being a star. I felt exhausted and used up.”

She felt her biggest enemy was her persona, even though it had exceeded her wildest dreams of fame. In an interview with People, she said:

“I used to wake up in the morning, and I would realize I was ‘Lady Gaga.’ And then I became very depressed and sad, and I didn’t want to be myself. I felt threatened by the things my career brought into my life and the pace of my life.”

She even wrote about it Chromatica, with lyrics like, “My biggest enemy is me” and “I’m completely lonely, please don’t judge me.”

Gaga has also been open about self-isolating, suicidal ideation, self-harm, and ongoing struggles with PTSD following an assault when she was 19. In her Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two, she also discusses her battle with fibromyalgia and the toll physical pain has taken in her career and mental health.

In the CBS interview, Gaga said she has found a way back to loving herself and embracing the ways in which her mental health informs her art.

Jim Carrey: Spiritual Transcendence and A Low Level of Despair

Acclaimed actor and comedian known for his iconic roles in movies running the gambit from Ace Ventura to Man on the Moon to The Truman Show, Jim Carrey is a comedic icon. But amid his comedic genius has been an ongoing relationship with depression.

In an interview in 2004, Carrey discusses taking Prozac for an extended time for depression. Even after going off the medication, he still experienced depression as a “low level of despair.” He describes his experience of depression interestingly in another interview, saying:

“…Depression is your body saying “F*** you, I don’t want want to be this character anymore. I don’t want to hold up this avatar that you’ve created in the world, it’s too much for me.”

Carrey says he found healing in spiritual teacher Jeff Foster’s description of depression as ‘deep rest’ from the character he had tried to play all his life. In other interviews, he has spoken of viewing his role in his professional career as “freeing others from concern,” only to ultimately realize he had never done that for himself.

“…Now, when the rain comes, it rains, but it doesn’t stay,” Carrey said in an interview. “It doesn’t stay long enough to immerse me and drown me anymore.” More than anything, Carrey has found solace in spirituality, which includes meditation, Buddhist principles, and even creative expression through painting. Of his art, he said, “I love being alive, and the art is the evidence of that.”

Depression Does Not Have The Final Word

As a therapist, I speak on behalf of my storied experience when I say that depression is never something to romanticize. I trust that these famous figures would agree, and would never wish their experiences with depression on anyone. But there is something to be said for turning the difficult hands we are dealt into something beautiful, whether by ending war or creating art. It’s a miraculous effect of healing and something humans are uniquely capable of doing.

Of course, these are examples of extraordinary achievements from highly influential people. Most of us will not have the kind of reach they have. But we can still live a life of beauty, even in the midst of our pain.

Now 62, Jim Carrey has become very contemplative of his life and career. He often talks about the fleeting pleasures of chasing accolades as he did. Instead, he encourages a simpler, gentler approach to life. “You don’t have to reach for the stars,” Carry said, “You can just let life happen, and go through the doors.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or experiencing thoughts of suicide, it is crucial to seek help immediately. For immediate assistance, please call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. This hotline is available 24/7 and offers confidential support from trained counselors who can provide help and guide you to the resources you need.