Thursday, February 16, 2006

West Wing Blues

The new York Times feature writer, Benedict Carey, has an article on a report about retrospective diagnoses of past American presidents.  According to the article, about half probably had some kind of diagnosable mental illness.
All told, almost half of American presidents from 1789 to 1974 had suffered from a mental illness at some point in life, according to a recent analysis of biographical sources by psychiatrists at Duke University Medical Center. And more than half of those presidents, the study found, struggled with their symptoms — most often depression — while in office.
This sort of thing is almost a pastime for doctors: researching prominent historical figures, and trying to figure out if they has some particular medical problem.  Obviously, there are methodological problems with this, and the results tend to be open to controversy.  

With this particular study, I am almost interested enough to go through and read the entire thing, and try to pick it apart.  Almost interested enough, but not quite.  What does get my attention, though, is a snap poll that is posted along with the version of the article that is up at the AOL News website.  There have been 2,410 responses so far, with the results as follows:

How much do you buy the mental diagnosis of past presidents?
Somewhat 42%
A lot 42%
Not at all 16%
Are you surprised so many were found to have mental illnesses?
No 78%
Yes 22%

I expected there to be a lot more disagreement with the results of the study, but most people seem to find it credible.  In point of fact, the study does at least have face validity.  The reason I say that, is that mental illness affects about half the general population at some point (lifetime prevalence); therefore, it should be no big surprise to find that it has affected about half of our presidents.