What presidents were mentally unstable while president?

This is largely conjecture of course since few ever publicly discussed any psychological problems they may have had, but for some the evidence seems incontrovertible.

Richard M. Nixon seems to have been if not the most unstable then the best documented in his instability. His paranoia rising from “annoying but manageable” levels to irresponsible and vicious, his midnight breakdowns, even some evidence of being outright delusional, all very well documented (and not in FROST/NIXON but in primary sources).

Franklin Pierce’s drinking definitely rendered him incapable of decision upon occasion, and it increased rather than decreased after he killed a woman with his carriage while driving drunk at night.

I’ve read accounts that James Buchanan was vain to the point of neurosis and may have had OCD or something like it [everything had to be EXACTLY perfect on his jacket for instance, or when he shaved] but while he’s not a well respected president it’s hard to call him unstable.

Abraham Lincoln is an odd one to try and place on this list. He frequently appears on lists of famous mentally ill people, with plentiful accounts of his ongoing battles with depression and oral accounts that he was suicidal and had to be restrained on at least two occasions (generally known as the “Ann Rutledge” episode [that he had after his possible girlfriend Ann Rutledge died] and the “Mary Todd” episode [when he broke his engagement to Mary Todd and had to be cared for at his friend’s plantation in Kentucky for a few months]).
What’s odd though is that the Civil War, which was enough to bring anybody charged with as much responsibility as Lincoln had, and who was as hated as Lincoln in both the Confederacy and the Union (he was certainly not without millions of supporters, but there was a large and vocal faction who despised him in the north) to nervous collapse, he held it together. His friend/law clerk/campaign worker (by some accounts something like a foster son) Elmer Ellsworth was killed practically in earshot of the White House almost immediately when the war began, his friend Edward Baker (for whom his second son was named) was killed a few months later, and throughout the war various friends and in-laws or their relations would be killed. He endured the death of Willie, by all accounts his favorite son, early the next year, and throughout the war he was plagued with nightmares. What’s amazing though is that while he grieved and mourned (twice looking at his son’s corpse after it was entombed) and worried very much about his wife (and her stunts and the seances she held in the White House), throughout he held it together enough to be a very hands on when needed commander-in-chief (actually considered leading troops himself during one of his “why won’t they fight?!” frustrations) and routinely keep 18 hour days, so it’s hard to call him mentally unstable while president.

Any you would call unstable (and don’t just say a name, but state why you would call them unstable).

Andrew Jackson. And my explanation is this.

Warren Harding suffered from depressions and tantrums, but that was less an organic illness, and more due to his being overwhelmed by the presidency.

Well, the problem with that is that it isn’t true. He got the nickname because he had the reputation of being “tough as hickory” as a general. Of course, as president, he did go on to beat somebody with a hickory cane, but that was somebody who had just tried to assassinate him, so I don’t know that that counts.

LBJ was obsessed with his height, & used powered lift chairs to tower over others. After he left office, his grew his hair long, hippy long, & lived in seclusion.

Does drug addiction count? JFK was hooked on painkillers.

Please pardon all my ellipses, but you know you write better ellipsisable text than anyone.

No president to add here; just wanted to say that while IANAShrink, the pattern you describe is not all that unusual for folks with depression. Which I’m sure you (Sampiro) know, but I thought it bore adding. Some depressives, and I count myself among them, don’t allow themselves to “indulge” in depressive *action *(as opposed to depressive thought, or desire, or need, or what have you) *when duty calls. *Some folks take that as a sign that the depression wasn’t really real; if responsibility could overcome depression, why doesn’t the depressed person just take responsibility for themselves? but it doesn’t work that way.

Didn’t Ronald Reagan have mild symptoms of Alzheimer’s in the last part of his presidency?

That is the awsomest link I have read in perhaps six months.

I thought LBJ’s hair, post presidency, was kinda cool.

More on Jackson, from Cracked:

Anyone have a picture of this?

I doubt it.

He was a recluse after he left the White House.

Well, I found this . . .

I came in here to say the same thing. I believe Nancy would restrict his access to the press, and would often stand next to him and whisper clues when he was in public.

As much as I really hated Reagan for lots of reasons, I have to admit, I admired Nancy for doing the best she could to support her husband and basically keep his illness a secret until after he left office. Yes, it was dangerous to have someone like that “leading the free world”, but I believe it was really only in the last few months of his second term that it started to become obvious.

No, he did not. Of course if you have a cite from some medical doctor who actually examined him and diagnosed this during the last parts of his Presidency, feel free to post it.


How dare you impugn the reputation of Saint Ronnie! Why, I’ll have you know that he was such a good and true American that diseases which would attack us lesser humans would never dream of infecting the Greatest. President. EVAR!

Little known fact – Ronnie, er, pardon, President Reagan – had the beginnings of a case of athlete’s foot in 1985. However, after a few stern words from Ed Meece and Lee Atwater about respecting the greatest leader the free world has ever known (or will ever) the fungus was overcome with shame and beat a hasty retreat from the President’s wingtips.

Just finished reading The Great Influenza, and the author makes the case that Wilson’s mental capacities were diminished by his recent bout with the Spanish flu, leading him to capitulate to the Brits and French on Armistice terms; the resulting harsh peace set the stage for you-know-who and WWII.

Come on, that’s Tom-Hanks-Da-Vinci-Code hair. You could get away with that in a formal setting.

The other commonly-held theory for that is stroke-related damage.

To be fair, there is no direct evidence* that Reagan was affected by Alzheimer’s during his presidency. Sometimes it’s a tough distinction between senior moments (mixing up names, misspeaking, etc) and Alzheimer’s. But the formal diagnosis came well after he’d left office. And most everyone who could make observations has said that he was not affected while in office. True, those would mostly be people who were anyway loyal to the President, which means that anything we say about his mental capacity is purely speculative. He did also suffer a head trauma while in the White House, which is documented but any immediate effects of that would have been temporary and IMO would not fall into the category of “mentally unstable”.

Hopefully it’s a very, very rare thing that we truly have a president who is unstable, political sniping aside.

  • Shibb, not at all a Reagan fan