There is a stigma against mental illness in our culture.
Many people completely avoid seeking psychiatric treatment because they’re afraid of getting labeled with a diagnosis, and everything they associate with being “mentally ill.”
It’s unfortunate because having a psychiatric illness doesn’t mean you can’t go on to have a fulfilling and productive life. It’s almost never is the most interesting or important thing about a person. It doesn’t define you.
Thinking about this issue inspired me to write about some of the famous people who have been diagnosed with mental illness, and showcase some of their accomplishments – some of them you could say succeeded because if their psychiatric illness, not in spite of it.
1. Michael Phelps / ADHD
When Michael Phelps was in kindergarten, his teacher told his mother, “Michael can’t sit still, Michael can’t be quiet, Michael can’t focus.” His mother suggested he might be bored. The teacher disagreed. “He’s not gifted,” he said. “Your son will never be able to focus on anything.” Shortly after Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD.
Phelps struggled in school, but the discipline he lacked in classes he cultivated in the pool. In sixth grade, he was able to stop taking his stimulant medication and continue thriving, using the structure that swimming provided to harness his focus.
I’d say the kindergarten teacher was proven wrong when Michael Phelps channeled tremendous focus to shatter seven world records and win eight gold metals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The Lesson: Struggle with finding focus? It might be that you haven’t found something worth your attention. People who have difficulty in classes or cubicles often thrive when they can use their bodies and minds more spontaneously. So get outside and channel your energy and creativity into a venture where you can flourish.
2. Winston Churchill / Bipolar Disorder
Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II, suffered from both episodes of depression (he called it his “black dog,”) as well as periods of euphoria and mania that characterize Bipolar illness. It wasn’t in spite of his mental illness, but perhaps because of it, that Winston Churchill is considered one of the great leaders of the war. The historian Anthony Storr wrote in Churchill’s biography:
“Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgment might well have concluded that we were finished.”
During the war effort against Germany, Churchill channeled his heightened energy, grandiosity, and aggressiveness into being a strong and fearless leader for his nation.
The Lesson: Sometimes a little bit of delusional grandeur can do you good. The more powerful you believe you are, the more likely you are to be right.
3. Sylvia Plath / Depression
It may be controversial to include a woman whose mental illness defined her death on a list of people who didn’t let mental illness define their life (as Plath’s life ended prematurely when she committed suicide via taking a bottle of sleeping pills and putting her head in an oven at thirty years old).
While Plath died tragically, during her life she channeled her raw and turbulent emotions into haunting poetry. Lady Lazarus in particular beautifully and sadly tells the story of her depression and frequent suicidal thoughts. I also get chills every time I read Daddy.
She inspired the term “The Plath Effect,” which describes the pattern of intensely creative and talented female writers who also struggled with mental illness (such as Virgina Woolf, Sarah Teasdale and Anne Sexton). Whether Plath’s creativity sprung from her crippling depression or not, she certainly translated her suffering into touching art.
The Lesson: Sometimes pain and suffering can be the source of inspiring creativity and imagination. If you feel it, get it out. Say it, speak it, write it, tell it – you may have beautiful art inside of you waiting to get out.
4. Charles “Buddy” Bolden / Schizophrenia
Some call Charles “Buddy” Bolden the father of Jazz. He never learned how to sight read, and instead played music by ear. Instead of playing music others had written, he would compose spontaneously, inspiring the improvisational and energetic style that characterized the jazz movement.
What you might not know is that Bolden had schizophrenia, a mental disorder characterized by paranoia, hallucinations and disorganized thought and behavior. It has been surmised that his disorganized pattern of thought might have in fact inspired his improvisational playing style, leading to the creation of the jazz movement.
The Lesson: Unique minds create unique discoveries. If a man who suffered from one of the most devastating mental illnesses could use his unique way of thinking to inspire an entire generation of music, what straw in your life do you have that you could spin into gold?
5. Paul Orfalea / ADHD, Dyslexia
Paul Orfalea, founder of the extremely successful copy chain Kinko’s, has spoken eloquently about his experience building a multi-billion dollar company even though he struggled to get D’s when he was in school. He calls his learning disabilities “learning opportunities” because the frenetic energy, restlessness and racing mind that made his school days so difficult also catapulted him to becoming one of the world’s most successful businessmen.
In an interview, Orfalea said “My learning disability gave me certain advantages, because I was able to live in the moment and capitalize on the opportunities I spotted.” He went on, “With ADD, you’re curious. You’re eyes believe what they see. Your ears believe what others say. I learned to trust my eyes.”
The Lesson: If you have trouble conforming to the rest of the world, maybe you should be treading your own path instead. Disadvantages in certain systems (i.e. school) may prove to be advantages in others (i.e. the entrepreneurial world).
6. Jim Carrey / Depression
Jim Carrey is best known for his career as an actor and comedian, and is considered one of the best physical comedians of our time. Below the surface, however, is a man who has struggled with the darkest parts of his nature.
Carrey has talked about how he learned his craft of comedy through desperation – at first to make his sick mother laugh, and then to help support his poverty-stricken family. His connection to his deepest emotions has given his the courage to push forward in his art – for example, making the indie drama Eternal Sunshine for the Spotless Mind even when everyone was telling him to “just do comedy.”
The Lesson: Sometimes the burden of being a deeply reflective person is the tendency to wander toward depression. However, with reflection comes a deeper understanding of human nature, which can lead to the ability to connect deeply with others and positively impact their lives.
7. Richard Branson / ADHD
I love Richard Branson. Who doesn’t love Richard Branson? The founder of the Virgin empire is an inspiring, energetic and free-spirited entrepreneur. But before he was an uber-successful billionaire businessman he was a high school kid struggling with ADHD. He ended up dropping out of school at 15 years old.
In one interview Branson said,”If I’m not interested in something, I don’t grasp it.”He talked about running multi-billion dollar companies but not understanding the difference between net and gross income.
I think this is something a lot of people with ADHD can identify with. They have trouble sitting through routine classes or work, but light up when they have a unique problem or challenge in front of them.
The Lesson: If you have unique abilities and skills, don’t feel like you need to conform to what everyone else is good at to be successful in your work. Any accountant can balance books – it takes a leader to become a CEO. Hire people to do the jobs you’re not good at and spend your time channeling your creativity in a way that will be the most impactful.
There you have it! Any famous people with mental illness you’d want to add to the list? There are many more, and it was hard to choose just a handful. Let me know what you think in the comments!