Looking back at WW2:
Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
Winston Churchill, September 4, 1939
Overcoming Handicaps is the Stuff of Greatness
Winston Churchill has remained one of the most admired leaders in modern history. He loudly and passionately warned the world about Hitler’s Germany long before the Fuehrer aroused other leaders’ suspicions. He was one of the few voices that warned of the rise of Hitler and a newly ascendant Germany. No one wanted to listen to the truth, but he persisted in speaking it anyway. He skillfully oversaw a teetering war effort and inspired his country to stand up against seemingly insurmountable odds. Not only could Churchill write a masterful speech, he could deliver one with true power and feeling. He was a superior orator and gave some of the greatest speeches in history. His voice was full of confidence and steadfastness. Many historians believe that Churchill was a genius who saved Great Britain and Europe.
Aristotle was the first to point out the link between madness and genius, including not just poets and artists but also political leaders.
During his severely depressed years in the political wilderness, Churchill saw the Nazi menace long before others did. His exhortations to increase military spending were rejected by Prime Minister Baldwin and his second-in-command, Chamberlain. When Chamberlain returned from signing the Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938, only Churchill and a small coterie refused to stand and cheer in parliament, eliciting boos and hisses from other honorable members.
At dinner that night, Churchill brooded: How could men of such honor do such a dishonorable thing? The depressive leader saw the events of his day with a clarity and realism lacking in others. Studies have shown that depression correlates with high degrees of empathy, a greater concern for how others think and feel. In one study, severely depressed patients had much higher scores on the standard measures of empathy than did a control group of college students; the more depressed they were, the higher their empathy scores. This was the case even when patients were not currently depressed but had experienced depression in the past.
Churchill experienced recurrent severe depressive episodes, during many of which he was suicidal. Even into his later years, he would complain about his “black dog” and avoided ledges and railway platforms, for fear of an impulsive jump. “All it takes is an instant,” he said. “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand right back and if possible get a pillar between me and the train. I don’t like to stand by the side of a ship and look down into the water. A second’s action would end everything. A few drops of desperation.”
Churchill’s depressive periods tended to be intense and prolonged. Sometimes they were connected with traumatic external events such as his dismissal from the Admiralty after the Dardanelles disaster in WWI. Other times they could not be attributed to such outside causes, fitting the classic profile of serious unipolar or bipolar depression. His depressions came and went throughout his long and remarkable life, and commenced in his youth. Churchill seemed to be aware that his depression was a medical condition. In 1911 a friend of Churchill’s claimed to have been cured of depression by a doctor. Churchill wrote about this with some excitement in a letter to his wife, Clementine: “I think this man might be useful to me – if my black dog returns. He seems quite away from me now – it is such a relief. All the colors come back into the picture.”
Today we can only make a retrospective diagnosis linking Winston Churchill and bipolar disorder, if we have evidence of mood swings – not depression alone. According to Sir Winston’s close friend Lord Beaverbrook, the great man was always either “at the top of the wheel of confidence or at the bottom of an intense depression.” This does sound like a description of Winston Churchill and manic depression.
In Churchill’s own writings is a description of his depression. Tellingly, he remarks that many days he could not get out of bed for the depth of the depression. Research has demonstrated strong links between bipolar disorder and substance abuse. Studies show that bipolar people are much more likely than depressed people, or the population at large, to be alcoholic. Further, alcoholics are more likely than members of the general population to be bipolar. Do manic depressives self-medicate this way to gain relief from the irritability, agitation and restlessness of mania?
Churchill’s favorite drink was whisky and soda, starting soon after breakfast. He is on record as having once drunk 11 of these during a single meal. When Churchill traveled to the US during Prohibition, he obtained a doctor’s note to certify that regular consumption of alcoholic spirits was necessary to his health.
Churchill also suffered from hearing loss but, interestingly, was more secretive about his hearing loss than he was about his depression. Churchill made no mention of hearing loss in his own published works, nor is it discussed by his early biographers, except as an adjunct to his age. The first detailed mention of his hearing loss is found in the 1966 biography, “Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran,” written by Churchill’s personal physician, Sir Charles Wilson (Lord Moran). Lord Moran told an interesting story about the Potsdam Conference of 1945. During this conference, President Truman, Stalin, and Churchill discussed the occupation of post-war Germany, and issued an ultimatum to Japan. Churchill had not read the briefs. Stalin was better prepared and would put sharp questions to Churchill, who would turn to his team and say, “What is the answer to that?” One of his team said, “We had to hiss the answers which he could not hear, and the whole thing became a shambles as a result.”
In 1962, Churchill had a visit from Dr. Robert Davidson, President emeritus of Westminster College, and his colleague. Dr. Davidson said, “Mr. Churchill was in bed during the interview; he was recovering from a fall. As I entered the room, his aide told me to sit at the head of the bed on Churchill’s right. There was a microphone under the bedclothes at that side of the bed. My colleague sat on the other side.” “I found Mr. Churchill very lucid and we conversed on a variety of topics during the visit. However, my colleague commented after we left, ‘The old boy is completely senile I suspect. He didn’t respond to anything I said.’ Of course, this was because he was seated out of the range of the microphone. Mr. Churchill’s age and hearing impairment had most certainly not affected his mind!”
Dr Paul Gilbert, author of the best seller Overcoming Depression, thinks that depression is an automatic response that we share with other mammals and is one of the human defenses. It is safer for the animal which lost to a stronger member of its group, to tone down its behavior to prevent a prolonged and losing struggle. Abandoned offspring which “close down and don’t make too much noise,” said Dr Gilbert, are less vulnerable to predators. During a depressed state we ruminate on the problems we have or we believe we have. While this forced introspection is a painful experience it helps making better decisions.
Churchill suffered a mild stroke while on holiday in the south of France in the summer of 1949. In June 1953, when he was 78, Churchill suffered a more severe stroke at 10 Downing Street. News of this was kept from the public and from Parliament, who were told that Churchill was suffering from exhaustion. He went to his country home, Chartwell, to recuperate from the effects of the stroke which had affected his speech and ability to walk. He returned to public life in October to make a speech at a Conservative Party conference at Margate. However, aware that he was slowing down both physically and mentally, Churchill retired as prime minister in 1955 and was succeeded by Anthony Eden. He suffered another mild stroke in December 1956. In the 1959 General Election Churchill’s majority fell by more than a thousand, since many young voters in his constituency did not support an 85-year-old who could only enter the House of Commons in a wheelchair. As his mental and physical faculties decayed, he began to lose the battle he had fought for so long against the “black dog” of depression.
There was speculation that Churchill may have had Alzheimer’s disease in his last years, although others maintain that his reduced mental capacity was merely the result of a series of strokes. In 1963, US President John F. Kennedy, acting under authorization granted by an Act of Congress, proclaimed him an Honorary Citizen of the United States (the first and only such honor ever granted), but he was unable to attend the White House ceremony.
Despite poor health, Churchill still tried to remain active in public life. On 15 January 1965, Churchill suffered a severe stroke that left him gravely ill. He died at his London home nine days later, at age 90, on the morning of Sunday 24 January 1965, 70 years to the day after his father’s death.
Getty Images: Winston Churchill
Named the Greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 poll, Churchill is widely regarded as being among the most influential people in British history.
One of Churchill’s famous speeches is followed by an interesting Discovery Channel series called Altered Statesmen, which documents Churchill’s more personal, issues, not usually discussed:
- 1. “Now, we are the masters of our fate”
Churchill: Altered Statesmen # 1
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Editor’s note: This short article which includes the subject of depression, wants readers to know, that in no way does our opinion flag, regarding the greatness of Winston Churchill, in fact, it grows with even greater enthusiasm. With Churchill, there could be an isomorphic correspondence between his personal battles, and those existing on the world stage. With his clarity of reality, vision of the future and genius to guide him, Winston Churchill succeeded in winning on both levels. He was truly one of the great players in all of world history.