Monday, February 19, 2007

A President's Depression

Over at MercatorNet, psychiatrist Theron Bowers compares two different looks at Abraham Lincoln's depression. The first is from CBS Television which is running 30-second public service announcements this month featuring Lincoln and other historic sufferers of depression. The segments, part of a campaign called CBS Cares, are intended to destigmatize mental illness. Bowers explains the rationale for such campaigns and why he thinks they're of minimal help:
Current dogma assumes that depression is under-treated because people are too embarrassed to ask for help. Therefore, pinning mental illness on the coattails of giants should remove the shame attached to a condition and draw sufferers into treatment....

No helpful information is contained in the CBS commercials. Tagging room-temperature heroic figures with various human ailments yields zero insight into that person or the “illness”. Would Prozac have made Poe less creepy? Would a happier Sherman have not burned down Atlanta? You won’t find the answer at CBS Cares. Our passion for diagnosing the dead is another skin-deep facet of the diversity movement.
Bowers points to what he believes is a far more informative glimpse into Lincoln's depression and how he lived with it:
Fortunately, we can have a deeper understanding of this brilliant man and his “illness”. In 2005 Joshua Wolf Shenk provided an analysis of Lincoln and depression in his book, Lincoln’s Melancholy. Shenk goes beyond the usual agenda of the troubled genius exposé. The book doesn’t settle for simply emboldening sufferers. Shenk moves the questions about Lincoln’s mood disorder from the realm of pop history and posters for Mental Health Awareness Month to the level of serious scholarship. He proclaims his ambitious goal in the subtitle of the book: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness
In the course of his review (which is worth reading in its entirety and caused me to add the volume to my wish list), Bowers rightly criticizes the biological reductionism that so pervades popular assumptions about the nature of depression:
Shenk elevates Lincoln from modern poster child for mental health to iconoclast against the modern biological conception of depression. Psychiatry built the medical tower of mental disorders by equating emotional suffering with disease. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) identifies distress as a hallmark of mental disorder. The focus on distress is so entrenched that many perversions such as bestiality, sado-masochism and transvestitism are no longer classified as mental disorders unless the practitioner is “distressed” over the behavior.
Emotional suffering is only evidence of a mental disorder in the way that physical pain is evidence of disease. All aspects of depression -- brief versus chronic, mild versus severe -- have labels attached in the DSM. Sadness has no more meaning than a rash. Certain cognitive habits associated with depression are also deemed unhealthy. Hopelessness and low self esteem have acquired mythological powers for explaining our social problems.

Shenk’s Lincoln restores sanity and hope to our present notions about depression. The story of Lincoln and his troubled mind doesn’t follow any script, treatment algorithm or predictable outcomes. Lincoln’s Melancholy provides both surprising answers and true inspiration.
Related: Covenant Seminary's Zack Eswine, who describes himself as one who "wrestle[s] with a melancholy temperament and bear[s] the scars of tragic circumstances," reflects on how Lincoln and C. H. Spurgeon persevered "while suffering varying degrees of gloom." (HT: Justin Taylor)


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