Churchill and the Stigma of Depression

By Neuroskeptic | May 15, 2013 3:01 am

The BBC today has an interesting article by Mark Brown of British mental health magazine One in Four: Do famous role models help or hinder?

The context is that in Britain, charities and other advocates for people with mental illness have become fond of pointing to famous people, past and present, who suffered from a psychiatric disorder.

The hope is that highlighting these ‘role models’ will fight stigma and provide hope. Winston Churchill and Steven Fry are especially popular in this regard.

But, as Brown argues, these well-intentioned campaigns may not be so helpful –

“Look,” they say. “Here is a person who has achieved so much. Do not lose heart, you too can overcome your disability if you follow their example.”

…but where the inspirational figure is selected for us, and the gap between their life and ours is too great, the effect is not one of encouragement but of disillusionment – especially if their story is told in terms of personal qualities like bravery or persistence.

Knowing that a famous person has the same impairment as you can be reassuring, but only in the vague way that hearing of a successful distant relative is reassuring.

Most of us will never scale Everest, compete for our country at sports or have a showbiz career. This doesn’t mean we’ve failed.

I agree. “He’s got it, and so do you, so you can be like him” is perilously close to “He’s got it, and so do you, so you should be like him – what’s your excuse?”

That said, I think some of these celebrity examples are useful, not as generic inspirations for ‘the mentally ill’ but as concrete answers to particular attitudes. Against the simplistic view that there’s a single ‘stigma of mental illness’, I think there are many different stigmas and they have to be tackled separately.

In the case of depression, the core stigma is that depression is a weakness, a moral failing. That depressed people are soft, weak, pitiable. This attitude is specific to depression – not even bipolar disorder is seen in the same way, let alone the other diagnoses. They have their own stigmas. Depression’s is weakness.

Now this is why Churchill is a good counterexample. Not just because he’s famous or ‘great’, but because he was famously tough. He faced down Hitler. He was blood, sweat and tears. In the most famous photos of him (and they are famous, out of all his photos, because they correspond to the mental image) he is almost unsmiling – but never despairing. Just resolute.

That he experienced depression undermines the myths surrounding that condition, in a way that an entertainer or other generic celebrity wouldn’t.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: media, mental health, select, Top Posts
  • Harold Maio

    Churchill and the Stigma
    of Depression

    The term “stigma” had not achieved the popularity it has
    achieved to day. That term was not directed at him.

    The hope is that highlighting these ‘role
    models’ will fight stigma and
    provide hope.

    I think there are many different
    stigmas and they
    have to be tackled separately.

    the core stigma

    They have their own stigmas

    Each time you validate this term, you harm.
    You harm both the public itself, and you harm those of us at whom you direct
    this term. See rape/stigma if you have forgotten.

    There are many “campaigns” to impose this term on
    minds. So along as the campaigns do, people,even editors like yourselves,

    Drawing attention to famous people who have experienced a
    mental illness helps. No, it does not help every one, but it helps the public to
    understand. And it has had effect on the professions, who are now passing along
    the idea of recovery to people who never dreamed it in the past. Like campaigns
    to educate about cancer, people benefit.

    Please do not direct the term “stigma” at anyone, thing. In so doing
    you legitimize the term, encourage its use..

    Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor

    Please do not direct the term “stigma” at anyone, thing. In so doing
    you legitimize the term, encourage its use..

    Harold A. Maio, retired Mental Health Editor

    • Buddy199

      You were an editor?

      • Harold Maio


  • Mike Johnson

    Mr. Churchill had Bipolar Depression, was a chronic substance abuser. In “leaders” mental illness is taken as divine inspiration whereas in the average person it is simply dangerous insanity. Herr Hitler was the same having Bipolar Depression and a more extreme form of substance abuse. Many “depressives” are Manic Depressives who seek treatment when their mania collapses and have historically been seriously misdiagnosed. Mr. Churchill was also injected with amphetamines as was Herr Hitler. Both were mad murdering maniacs though Mr. Churchill was on the winning side and hence an inspired genius.

    • Buddy199

      Then again, Churchill didn’t start WW2 or try kill all the Jews of Europe, if that makes any difference in your moral equivalence.

  • Alexandra Mitchell

    Anyone who has ever experienced depression or wants to know what depression is really like should read this.

  • JonFrum

    Churchill also stuttered, and also shows up on list of ‘famous stutterers.’

    As a stutterer, I have the same kind of problem with this list. It is a combination of people who either don’t stutter any more (Joe Biden), or never stutter during professional speaking (James Earl Jones) or people who never have to talk to do their job (professional athletes, novelists, etc).

    While it is true that some stutterers see their condition fade away over time (Biden), and others can control it in ‘performance’ (James Earl Jones), the vast majority of stutterers who don’t get better by the end of adolescence will stutter until the day they die. It is a truism of the field that there is no ‘cure.’

    So how does a Churchill, or a Joe Biden – who we never hear stuttering, unless we study carefully and know the subtle signs to look for – serve as a ‘role model?’ A role model would be a person who is successful in spite of stuttering while doing their job. Churchill was able to hide his stuttering, and hiding is not what stutterers need.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Good point.

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  • Semigrounded

    “In the case of depression, the core stigma is that depression is a weakness, a moral failing.”

    Core stigmas tend to be more directly interpersonal than an abstraction like “weakness.” How about “self-involved” or “attention-grubbing?” As evidence, I’ll point to David Foster Wallaces’, “The Depressed Person.” (Link below.) It’s the most annoying short story you’ll ever read, and it is so because it nicely taps into the grating self-obsession of the chronically wounded.

    There’s an interesting duality to depression, though. As neuroscience weaves pathologies deeper into the general population, it’s hard not to see science as trudging behind literature, whose cardinal rule for centuries has been to define individuality in terms of incompleteness. Precision breaks people apart, and blunt sentimentality puts them back together again. That’s the strength of depression. It makes you a sponge for other people’s brokeness, and, by default, the needs that drive them. There’s no way to understand others but through the conduit of the self, and depression achieves this by creating a double-state. By inextricable mixing other people’s emotions with your own, your self-obsesssion is simultaneously an obsession with others. It’s the point where narcissism and altruism clumsily kiss. Granted, that fact doesn’t make it any less annoying to deal with.

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  • Indigo Rhythms

    As a depressed person I think it a good idea to associate famous people with the disorder since it gives depressed people hope and it counteracts the association with weakness. Churchill and Lincoln are about as far away from weakness as one can get.

  • Pingback: Which Websites Can Reduce Anxiety and Depression? Evidence and Recommendations from PubMed Editor Hilda Bastian | MentalHealthMomBlog()



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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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