12 Historic Leaders Who Struggled With Mental Illness

Published February 9, 2017
Updated February 10, 2017

When we closely examine history’s most impactful leaders, we often find common traits like boldness, eloquence, and creativity. But what about those characteristics that aren’t necessarily as celebrated?

Indeed, a more detailed appraisal reveals a darker side to the pinnacle of leadership attained by so few. Let’s take a look at these unforgettable leaders who have not only gone to battle to create their idea of a perfect polity, but also went to battle with themselves, internally waging war with mental illness:

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln Beard Chair
Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, suffered from episodes of depression throughout his life (described by one friend as bouts of profound melancholy). In one instance, he was rumored to have been found wandering the woods with a shotgun following the death of a close friend.Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Stalin

Stalin Profile
Joseph Stalin was the leader of the USSR from the 1920s to 1953. He ruled through terror, murdering millions of his own citizens. If he had been evaluated by today’s mental health standards, he very likely would have been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, paranoid personality disorder, and manic depression.Wikimedia Commons

Martin Luther King, Jr.

King Signs
It's hard to find a more passionate and expressive leader than Martin Luther King, Jr. Still, King suffered through dark days. The civil rights leader experienced severe depressive episodes well into adulthood following two reported suicide attempts as an adolescent. Even after his rise to prominence as a human rights activist, his staff urged him to seek psychiatric treatment, which he refused.Wikimedia Commons

Diana, Princess of Wales

Diana Smile
Diana, Princess of Wales earned a world-renowned reputation for her compassion for others and charity work. In the midst of international admiration, the princess also suffered from severe depression and bulimia.Wikimedia Commons

Maria I of Portugal

Maria Portugal
Queen Maria I of Portugal ruled from 1777 to 1816. Although history remembers her as an excellent ruler, she also became known as Maria the Mad as it grew clear that she suffered from religious mania and melancholia. She was declared mentally insane in 1792 and her second son took over the leadership of the kingdom until her death.Wikimedia Commons

Nero, Roman Emperor

Nero Red
Nero, the Roman emperor from 54 to 68 AD, had Christians burned, executed his own mother and brother and ordered his subjects to revere him as a god. He suffered from narcissism and histrionic personality disorder. Wikimedia Commons

Winston Churchill

Churchill Tie
Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of the UK from 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955, struggled bipolar disorder, characterized by a tendency toward depression that he referred to as his "black dog." Wikimedia Commons

Commodus, Roman Emperor

Commodus Stone
Commodus, Roman ruler from 180 to 192, suffered from narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders. He renamed Rome and various streets after himself because he believed he was the reincarnation of Hercules. A savage ruler, he had a servant burned to death for making his bath too cold. Wikimedia Commons

Lawton Chiles, Former Governor of Florida

Lawton Hands Together
Lawton Chiles — Floridian senator from 1971 to 1989 and governor from 1991 to 1998 — won the gubernatorial election even after the public was made aware of his use of Prozac to treat clinical depression.Wikimedia Commons

John Curtin, 14th Prime Minister of Australia

Curtin Glasses
John Curtin, 14th Prime Minister of Australia from 1941 to 1945, led Australia through the period when the nation squared off with Japan immediately before the onset of World War II. Revered widely, Curtin also suffered from bipolar disorder.Wikimedia Commons

Adolf Hitler

Hitler Hands Together
Academics studying his personality believe that Adolf Hitler suffered from borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.Wikimedia Commons

Donald Trump

Trump Clap
Wikimedia Commons

Next, discover the history of mental illness through the ages. Then, check out five horrifying historical "cures" for mental illness.

All That's Interesting
Established in 2010, All That's Interesting brings together a dedicated staff of digital publishing veterans and subject-level experts in history, true crime, and science. From the lesser-known byways of human history to the uncharted corners of the world, we seek out stories that bring our past, present, and future to life. Privately-owned since its founding, All That's Interesting maintains a commitment to unbiased reporting while taking great care in fact-checking and research to ensure that we meet the highest standards of accuracy.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.