Posted by Beth Schwinn, DCoE Public Affairs on February 13, 2015
Photo by Marine Lance Cpl. Norman Eckles
The news is full of stories about service members who struggle with psychological health concerns, but you don’t often hear that many U.S. presidents likely faced similar challenges.
As the nation celebrates President’s Day, it’s worth noting that nearly half of presidents between 1776 and 1974 experienced symptoms of mental illness at some point in their lives, one-quarter during their terms as president, according to a 2006 Duke study.
Of the 37 presidents who served between 1776 and 1974, 18 exhibited signs of psychological health concerns, according to the study by three psychiatrists. The most common disorder was depression, followed by anxiety and alcohol abuse. One president may have had posttraumatic stress disorder following the violent death of a child.
The study doesn’t conclusively establish that a particular president had a particular type of mental illness — since they weren’t actually seen by therapists, it’s not certain whether Abraham Lincoln really had depression or Calvin Coolidge had an anxiety disorder, said Mark Bates, Deployment Health Clinical Center associate director for population health.
“There’s limited empirical data and lots of speculation based on historical records,” he said.
But the aggregate data is consistent with the prevalence of mental illness in the population, Bates said. About half of Americans experience mental illness at some point in their lives, and a quarter of Americans report having experienced it in the past year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.