Strength, courage, and persistence are qualities often used to describe leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, an admired public figure of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 21st century, scholars across the world write about Dr. King’s work and his inspiring words on dreaming big. Even though there are thousands of essays about Dr. King’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement, very little is written about his depression, which may have contributed to his radical empathy and his nonviolent resistance which shaped the fight for social justice in the 1960s.
Martin Luther King grew up in a country where racial tensions between white and black Americans were high. Dr. King dedicated his life to fighting for a world where black Americans would have access to the same rights as white Americans, and where segregation would be socially eradicated. In doing so, he preached that nonviolence would work to achieve equality. Dr. King said, “violence brings only temporary victories; violence, by creating many more social problems that it solves, never brings permanent peace” (Qtd in Ghaemi). These were some of the wise words stated by Dr. king.
The article “Martin Luther King’s Manic-Depressive Illness: A Source of His Greatness and Despair” states that Dr. King was hospitalized several times because of exhaustion. When he was not experiencing an episode of exhaustion, he enjoyed strong energy. King’s symptoms meet the definition of mania. For instance, he only needed four hours of sleep and he rarely tired. Such features--the decreased need for sleep, high in energy--are manic symptoms, the opposite of depressive states. This shows that Dr. King suffered from both mania and depression.
The American Psychiatry association affirms that depressed patients are susceptible to experience negative effects of how they feel, think and act (1). It is common to experience sadness and the loss of interest in activities. Depression can lead to emotional and physical problems. In “Person of Interest: The Driving Furies of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Dr. Nassir Ghaemi discusses that depression began to affect Dr. King physically. Dr. King’s physician advised him to get psychiatric treatment, but King refused to get any sort of medication because “any admission of psychiatric symptoms would be seen by the public as a sign of personal weakness and seized upon by his enemies to discredit him” (1).
Few Americans know that Dr. King tried to commit suicide twice when he was a teenager. According to the article “Men Who Were Good in a Crisis because of Mental Illness” the death of King’s grandmother affected his mental state and influenced him to jump out of a second-floor window, an action perceived as a suicide attempt. Even though depression caused him to attempt suicide, it also influenced him to realize that the main goal of the Civil Rights Movement was to change the attitudes of the oppressors. Dr. Ghaemi expresses that King saw segregation as a psychological illness not as a political issue, writing that “racism was not a political problem to be outlawed; it was a psychological disease to be cured.”
Mental illnesses like depression are subject to negative judgments; furthermore, some believe that depression does not have a positive side, but depression has helped leaders like Dr. King to solve problems during a crisis. According to “Madness and Leadership,” victims of depression do not overestimate their control over their surroundings (1). Therefore, leaders who have depression are often successful because they are able to picture multiple outcomes for a situation. Dr. King used this to his advantage. He strategically engulfed the social issues of his time to help him cope with his own personal dilemmas. He realized that one must stop going along with the crowd and accepting what everyone else believes, in order to solve problems like racism. In a sermon, Dr. King said, “Everybody passionately seeks to be well-adjusted, but there are some things…to which men of good will must be maladjusted” (Qtd in Ghaemi). The word “adjusted” as expressed by Dr. King has been defined by psychologists as “fitting in.” Dr. King argued that it is necessary to challenge injustices in order to resolve them. His speeches were passionate because they derived from a much more personal place than the fight for equal rights; his fight was also an internal one.
Dr. King’s manic symptoms made him so understanding in his politics that for non-depressed patients, his view of life seems out of this world. Through his effort to fight inequality he provided hope to millions of black Americans, by helping them understand what equality should mean and what it should represent. Dr. Ghaemi, who oversees the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center, articulates that Dr. King’s productivity, creativity, and resilience are associated with depression, and manic symptoms (1). Dr. King’s depression opened the door for a deeper connected-ness to the racial infractions that existed in the 1960s. It was depression that gave him power to achieve what he did, to elevate the message of his speeches.
For centuries society looked down upon mental health; however, many great leaders had some form of mental illness. The idea that illnesses such as depression can make one’s life worse is flawed because mental illnesses come in many differing degrees. In the case of Dr. King, his depression served as a strength rather than a weakness. After reading about Dr. King’s case I consider that mental illnesses such as depression may have several psychological advantages for leadership. In the case of Dr. King depression allowed him to obtain a more realistic view than most people. Indeed, one can notice that depression helped Dr. King to confront challenges at the national and personal level. Even though, by 1968 Dr. King felt that spiritually God was speaking to him, showing him that his life was going to come to a tragic end—he experienced hallucinations. Dr. King was tired from fighting two battles at the same time – racism and depression. He knew that he was making a difference, but his fatigue stemmed from how White Americans responded to him.
From articles that depict the positive side of depression, psychologists have noticed that society tends to overrate sanity. Often, in our worse hours of trauma, the fight begins. Pain fuels the fight, inspires us to want to achieve success and to overcome fear. Mental illnesses can be helpful depending on the degree it affects a person’s health. Dr. King depressive state fueled his fight for social justice. He is considered one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century. Dr. King proved himself to be a visionary, having accomplished great things during emotional heights that can be attributed partially to his mental illness.