Lincoln and Depression

What We Can Learn About Dealing with Depression from President Lincoln

DBSA Greenwich, CT




  • Depression afflicts 100 million people a year.
  • It is the world’s leading cause of disability.
  • About a million people worldwide commit suicide each year as a result of depression -more than die from war and homicide combined. Depression brings with it great pain including…
  • the loss of all pleasure
  • the inability to sleep
  • exhaustion
  • extreme anxiety
  • profound feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • the inability to think or concentrate
  • recurrent thoughts of death
  • and often, because the pain is so unbearable-suicide itself.


In ancient times the word stigma was defined as ‘A mark burned into the skin of a criminal or slave, a brand.’


Tragically, because of this stigma, depression -unlike the majority of other painful medical conditions -is still a source of shame for the sufferer.

People are still embarrassed to admit, even to themselves, that they are depressed. They are even more embarrassed to acknowledge this condition to others.

Shame and Stigma


Lawyers, Politicians, & Depression

  • Many studies reveal that people are unwilling to vote for a politician who has been clinically depressed.
  • Since most political candidates are lawyers, it may be interesting to note that a Johns Hopkins study found that of 28 occupations, lawyers were the most likely to suffer depression.
  • Similarly, a research study of 801 lawyers in the State of Washington found that 19% suffered from depression
  • a quality-of-life survey by the North Carolina Bar Association revealed that almost 26% of respondents exhibited symptoms of clinical depression. Why are lawyers more prone than others to this dangerous disease?

Perfectionism and Pessimism

Perfectionism…Perfectionism drives them to excel in college, in law school, and on the job.

BUT…perfectionism has a dark side; it can produce a chronic feeling that nothing is good enough.

Pessimism… As for pessimism, it may help lawyers excel by anticipating the worst, and thus preparing for it but also may lead to stress and often pessimism makes one vulnerable to depression, as Martin Seligman repeatedly pointed out in his now classic book, “Learned Optimism.”

In 2010 that is a totally unacceptable answer. Since depression still carries considerable stigma does this mean that all of these depressed lawyers should abandon any political ambitions or conceal the truth about this aspect of their lives?An important means of overcoming stigma is by countering the negative stereotype of depression with an extremely positive example image –

  • a person who has suffered with depression but who has transcended their illness
  • a person who clearly exemplifies many highly esteemed virtues and values -and a person of great character and achievement.

Overcoming Stigma?

Counter the negative stereotype with an extremely positive example.

  • a person who has suffered with depression but who has transcended their illness
  • a person who clearly exemplifies many highly esteemed virtues and values
  • a person of great character and achievement

Abraham Lincoln

Our Greenwich DBSA group has identified such a person who has become the hero and role model for our group. “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness” by Joshua Shenk.

In this book Shenk makes the compelling argument that Lincoln was clinically depressed and suicidal on at least two occasions. Shenk indicated that during Lincoln’s first episode of depression, which lasted many months, Lincoln often said that he felt like committing suicide and would wander off into the woods. During his second major depressive episode Lincoln collapsed on the floor of the State Legislature. He was unable to work, missed many votes and often spoke of his misery, his hopelessness, and his suicidal thoughts.

Lincoln’s Depression Described

“Melancholy dripped from him as he walked.”-Herndon

“I am now the most miserable man living.”-Lincoln

“The melancholy seemed to roll from his shoulders and drip from the ends of his fingers.” -Shenk

What could Lincoln do?

The only treatments available to him were:

  • extensive bleeding
  • drugs that induced vomiting and diarrhea
  • Fasting– mustard rubs
  • black pepper drinks
  • pills that included the poison mercury

So what options did Lincoln have?

  • He adapted by learning everything he could about his affliction.
  • He explored his melancholy and the similar suffering of others.
  • He rejected the prevailing view that melancholy was in any way a sinful or a malevolent force that needed to be either cast out or violently suppressed.
  • He practiced no denial but instead educated himself and read extensively on medical theory, philosophy and theology as it related to his condition.
  • He spoke about his condition in plain human terms and saw this not only as being honest but also as a step in defining himself as a person.Lincoln did not deny or avoid his pain… Instead…Lincoln learned to share his pain with others. He articulated his depression, found relief and in so doing adapted to and ultimately transcended his condition.

Lincoln’s spiritual life and spiritual principles

  • Lincoln was frequently moved to prayer. He spoke of himself as a “humble instrument of God’s Will.”
  • Much of the concept of AA which is “Let go and let God” was manifested by Lincoln in turning over his will to God and perhaps, in the process, turning over his depression to God.

Meaning and Purpose

Never self righteous and ever humble, Lincoln became increasingly decisive as his spiritual connection and spiritual commitment became an increasing source of strength.

  • Lincoln matured under conditions of sorrow and found profound meaning in deep anguish.
  • Abraham Lincoln was transformed by the Civil War. He gained strength not from avoiding the pain of it but rather by facing it with mind heart and sprit. Lincoln found meaning in his suffering so that it became not merely an obstacle to overcome but a factor in guiding his life’s work. Lincoln’s heroic response to his pain inspired our DBSA support group….
  • Our group was inspired as we learned more about Lincoln and his extraordinary courage and forthrightness in dealing with his own depression rather than attempting to conceal it.
  • We discovered that Lincoln spoke openly about his depression on many occasions and decided that we needed to be more forthright ourselves in talking about our depression. This became our mission.


Purpose & Passion

  • We also chose to model ourselves on Lincoln’s courage and vision in overcoming his depression.
  • Each of the team members then focused on identifying a deeper purpose for themselves and on discovering the courage to pursue their goals as a means of both combating depression and developing resilience.


A subject of central importance in recovery.

It is a primary tenet of our group that the crucial responsibility for recovery and for happiness lies within the individual him or herself.

  • They learned that they could regain power over their own lives and over their states of mind.
  • They discovered that they had new choices when faced with negative experiences and problems. By empowering group members to cope, they gradually regained that most precious commodity… HOPE.

Happiness Definition

Our definition of happiness, which became the focus of our group:

  • developing competence
  • confidence
  • rational problem solving
  • purposeful planning
  • Members of the group learned that mastering happiness takes a great deal more effort and thought than whistling a happy tune. One final lesson we all learned from President Lincoln was to laugh. Laughter is contagious, and the laughter of one person in the group will invariably provoke laughter from others.

Lincoln and Humor

Lincoln also discovered over and over the healing powers of humor. In the famous debates with Stephen Douglas, Douglas accused Lincoln of being “two faced.” Lincoln responded,” If I were two faced would I have kept this one!”

Another example of Lincoln’s sense of humor occurred when he was in the White House and developed a mild case of the infectious disease small pox. At the time, Lincoln was troubled by so many people seeking favors. After realizing that he was contagious, Lincoln joked: “Now at last I have something I can give everyone.”

So much more can be said about our hero, President Lincoln, and his impact on our group. Perhaps this is best done, by having a few members of our Lincoln Team speak to you about their pain, their journey to recovery and what they personally learned from President Lincoln.