We remember Winston Churchill the orator, the fiery leader, the man who refused to submit to tyranny, and in whose stubborn refusal a nation, and then the world, found the strength to resist and ultimately prevail. Other prominent British statesmen had failed to fill the role that Churchill rode to glory. Churchill alone emerged as the great leader, the wartime genius, the deliverer of democracy. And although some acknowledge that he had mental problems, few appreciate the relevance of those problems to his prodigious leadership abilities. I believe that Churchill’s severe recurrent depressive episodes heightened his ability to realistically assess the threat that Germany posed.
One might suppose that such a great man would have to be especially whole, healthy and fit in mind and body, full of mental and spiritual capabilities that escape average men. But Churchill belied this notion. In fact, he was quite ill, and his story, if belonging to a middle-class American living in the 21st century, would seem a sad but typical tale of mental illness.
There is no doubt that he had severe periods of depression; he was open about it – calling it, following Samuel Johnson, his “Black Dog.” Apparently his most severe bout of depression came in 1910, when he was, at about age 35, home secretary. Later in his life, he told his doctor, Lord Moran, “For two or three years the light faded from the picture. I did my work. I sat in the House of Commons, but black depression settled on me.” He had thoughts of killing himself. “I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through,” he told his doctor. “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.”