Robin Williams’ suicide has led to a greater public discussion of Bipolar Disorder. This mental illness, which affects 2.4% of the worldwide population, includes many of the most intelligent and creative people in their societies. Last week I promised I would write about some of the famous people who endured manic-depression–people who changed our understanding of the arts, of ourselves and our world and improved our lives in innumerable ways.
The photo accompanying this blog is a copy of Edvard Munch‘s “The Scream,” a depiction of a mental state Munch experienced and was able to convert to an image.
Many people believe that Winston Churchill, who admitted to living with “the black dog of depression,” was bipolar. In the midst of full-blown manias, Churchill would stay up all night, writing. He produced 43 books in addition to his work as an elected politician and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War II. Teddy Roosevelt was likely bipolar. At his best, he was a great conservationist and prime mover in establishing the US’ national park system and the building of the Panama canal. On the downside, his impulsive decisions led to such misadventures as intervention of a rebellion in the Philippines that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.
Ernest Hemingway, who killed himself at the age of 61, is one of the best known 20th century bipolar writers. His granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway, recently participated in a documentary, Running from Crazy, about the prevalence of Bipolar Disorder in her family. Her sister, Margaux, who was manic-depressive, committed suicide, as did a total of seven of her family members.
The list goes on and on: Ted Turner, Richard Dreyfuss, Dick Cavett, Russell Brand. One of the most affecting, for me, is Jonathan Winters, a role model for Robin William. Winters experienced a severe breakdown in the early sixties and was institutionalized for eight years. He was diagnosed as Bipolar during that time, but there was very little effective treatment. Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters were both only children who spent a lot of time alone during childhood, inventing quirky fantasy figures. The two were known for quick wit, wordplay and the goofy comic characters they created. I miss both of them.
For more about creativity and mental illness, see Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched With Fire.