Tuesday 15 April 2014

Black Dog

The Germans naively used this picture in the US to portray Churchill as a gangster - such was their misunderstanding of British and American humour

Interesting piece from our friends in NAMI about famous people who had a mental illness (follow the links from our piece on Facebook here).

On their list is Winston Churchill, whose depressive problems (what he called his "black dog") are now quite widely discussed.

I recollect a few years ago our sister charity Rethink causing a major stink by putting up a statue of WC in a straitjacket. The Churchill family was apoplectic and perhaps there was an error in taste though it certainly drew attention to the issues.

But I remain sceptical about the alleged positive affects of mental illness on the achievements of famous people (or indeed on anybody) and Churchill is an interesting case.

The eminent psychiatrist Anthony Storr wrote of Churchill "Had he been a stable and equable man, he could never have inspired the nation. In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgement might well have concluded that we were finished".

Hmm. It is pushing matters to suggest that it was irrational not to come to terms with Hitler in 1940 even if some people like the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax rather thought that. Doubtless some of Churchill's thinking was instinctive and visceral rather than purely calculating but that isn't the preserve of mental illness.

I think it is more credible to celebrate the achievements of people in spite of their mental illness and I am not sure that it is helpful to look for advantages, though I do understand why people will explore that as another way to nurture hope.


When Churchill's funeral was repeatedly covered on the TV news over several days in 1966 my Mum recollects me (aged 6) saying "Why are they still wheeling around that poor old man?"

Postscript 2:

"Straitjacket or "straightjacket"? Both are used but I think the former is correct, coming from the archaic "straiten" meaning restrict, now only commonly used in "straitened circumstances".

Churchill's grandson said of Rethink's statue "This is probably a good cause in search of publicity and they have let some idiot ruin their case" - a chip off the old block then