Search Rutgers Rutgers GSAPP Search
  Franks Fund for Research on Stigma
Famous People with Mental Illness

Throughout history and contemporary times, people with mental illnesses have contributed immensely to society and human culture. Despite their accomplishments, though, many faced stigma within their lives. These articles and short biographies provide information about how many accomplished individuals have contended with stigma in their lives.

Stigma against mental illness affects people from all walks of life, regardless of social class, wealth, and power.  Here is a short list of famous individuals who contended with mental illness and stigma.

  • Isaac NewtonIsaac Newton, the famous English mathematician of the 17th Century, was responsible for many scientific discoveries that we take for granted today, such as the "corrected" Gregorian calendar date. Newton’s greatest mathematical discoveries were the gravitational relationship between the earth and the moon, and centrifugal force. Newton was well educated, had access to the best knowledge of his day, and was wealthy in later life. He suffered from several “nervous breakdowns” in his life and was known for great fits of rage towards anyone who disagreed with him, which some have labeled bipolar disorder, which was unknown at the time. In 1705, Newton was the first scientist to be knighted by Queen Anne for his great scientific contributions. [text from]

  • George IIIGeorge III, was King of the United Kingdom from 1760 to his death in 1820.  In the latter half of his life, George III suffered from recurrent and, eventually, permanent mental illness. Medical practitioners were baffled by this at the time, although it is now generally thought that he suffered from the blood disease, porphyria, an enzymatic disorder that affects the nervous system, resulting in mental disturbances, including hallucinations, depression, anxiety, and paranoia, among other symtoms.  It has been suggested that the film, “The Madness of King George,” underestimates his degree of suffering.  [text from wikipedia]

  • Ludwig van Beethoven Ludwig van Beethoven, the famous German composer and pianist, had bipolar disorder, which some have said gave him such creative power that his compositions broke the mold for classical music forever. He was a child prodigy whom his father tried to exploit. His manic episodes seemed to fuel his creativity. He wrote his most famous works during times of torment, loneliness, and while suffering psychotic delusions.  It took him 12 years to finish his last and 8th Symphony in total deafness.  He then medicated himself with opium and alcohol and died several years later of liver disease.[text from

  • Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, suffered from severe and debilitating depressions that sometimes led to suicidal thoughts, as recorded by Carl Sandburg in his comprehensive six-volume biographical analysis of Lincoln’s life.  Lincoln relied upon several means to cope with his depression, including work, humor, fatalistic resignation, and religious feelings.  “A tendency to melancholy” Lincoln once wrote in a letter to a friend, “...let it be observed, is a misfortune, not a fault.”  The most amazing part of his story was the sheer determination with which he willed himself to overcome his serious affliction and still achieve all he was able to achieve for our young and troubled nation at war with itself.[text from and]

  • Leo TolstoyLeo Tolstoy was the famous Russian author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  Tolstoy revealed the depth of his own mental illness in the memoir, Confession.  He suffered from clinical depression, hypochondriasis, alcoholism, and substance abuse. [text from]

  • Camille ClaudelCamille Claudel was a French sculptor and graphic artist.  A protégé of Auguste Rodin, Claudel later became intimately involved with him, creating a scandal, but ended the relationship after she became pregnant and lost the baby in an accident, which triggered a depression.  Claudel and Rodin nevertheless kept in close contact with one another despite the fact that Rodin never left his relationship of 20 years with another woman.  Despite her success as a brilliant sculptor, from 1905 on, Claudel acted mentally deranged. She destroyed many of her statues, disappeared for long periods of time, and acted paranoid. She accused Rodin of stealing her ideas and of leading a conspiracy to kill her.  Her family committed her to an asylum where she lived for the next 30 years and ultimately died.  Although her admission papers reported that she suffered "from a systematic persecution delirium mostly based upon false interpretations and imagination,” historians note that doctors repeatedly tried to convince her family that Claudel need not be institutionalized because she did not suffer from mental distress when scultping, but her family repeatedly refused, making some suspect that Claudel’s family merely wanted her out of the way. Isabelle Adjani plays Claudel in the film, “Camille Claudel.”  [text from wikipedia]

  • Vincent Van Gogh Vincent Van Gogh, famous French painter and artist, was characterized as peculiar and suffering from unstable moods for most of his short life. He suffered from epileptic seizures that some believe were caused by the excesses of absinthe, very strong liquor popular among talented people who believed it inspired greater creativity.  Many have tried to offer a definitive diagnosis of his illness after reading his personal letters. It is believed that his depressive states were also accompanied by manic episodes of enormous energy and great passion. Van Gogh committed suicide at age 37. [text from]

  • Winston ChurchillWinston Churchill was Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War II.  He was also an officer in the British Army, a historian, an impressionist painter, and a Nobel Prize-winning writer.  His memoirs describe his battles with depression, which he nick-named his “Black Dog.”  Accounts have also indicated that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder. [wikipedia summary]

  • Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf, a British novelist, born of privilege, experienced the mood swings of bipolar disorder her entire life. She wrote to make sense out of her mental chaos and was greatly admired for her creative insight into human nature. She was tolerated by friends and family, receiving great care and understanding during her entire life, and because of this, never had to face institutionalization.  She died at her own hand by filling her pockets with stones and walking into a nearby river. The cause of death was determined as "suicide, while the balance of her mind was disturbed." [text from]

  • Eugene O'NeillEugene O'Neill, a Nobel Prize-winning playwright known for Long Day's Journey into Night, and Ah, Wilderness!, came from a deeply troubled family background, suffering from clinical depression for the greater portion of his life. His most famous plays were written between 1935 and 1943, despite persistent suffering.  [text from]

  • Ernest HemingwayErnest Hemingway was a novelist, short-story writer, and journalist, winning both a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize for his work, regarded as classics in American literature. He was a World War I veteran and a major figure among the 1920’s expatriate community in Paris.  Hemingway suffered from depression throughout his life and was also known to be a heavy drinker, developing full-blown alcoholism later in life.  Several of Hemingway’s family members committed suicide, including his father, sister, brother, and grand-daughter.  Hemingway too killed himself after a previously failed suicide attempt and multiple electroconvulsive shock treatments, which resulted in memory loss, reportedly increasing Hemingway’s depression.  [wikipedia summary]

  • Tennessee WilliamsTennessee Williams was a Pultizer Prize-winning playwright, popularly known for The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  Williams suffered from depression, which exacerbated after his schizophrenic sister underwent a lobotomy in the mid-1940s.  After his lover of almost 15 years died in 1961, Williams sunk into a deeper depression, heavily self-medicating with alcohol and other drugs.  He completed a detoxification program in 1969, but continued to suffer from depression and substance abuse for the rest of his life. [wikipedia summary]

  • Vivien LeighVivien Leigh, actress made famous for her leading role in "Gone With the Wind" and creative genius for stage and screen, suffered from serious bouts of mania and depression, tuberculosis, and poor health her entire life.  Because of her personal experience with mental and physical illness, she was frequently cast into roles that portrayed the torment of a mad or ill heroine.  Vivien was once able to make a full recovery after shock treatments, only to decompensate years later. A “nervous breakdown” associated with a miscarriage proved to be the unraveling of her marriage with actor Lawrence Olivier, who continued to be a devoted friend.  She was finally diagnosed with cyclical manic-depression with hallucinations and was confined to a nursing home, only to recover and return to the screen for her last movie.  Leigh finally succumbed to tuberculosis at the young age of 53 while filming “The Ship of Fools.”  She became known and admired for her ability to fulfill her passionate dream for stardom despite her illnesses.  [text from]

  • William Styron  William Styron, author, writes about his own depression and his decision to seek help in his book, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness.  His earlier works, which he wrote prior to his diagnosis and admission of his illness, described with uncanny accuracy, the symptoms and the problems he would experience later in his life. [text from]

  • John NashJohn Nash, a mathematical genius in game theory, differential geometry, and partial differential equations, was honored with the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1994 and is the subject of Ron Howard’s film, “A Beautiful Mind,” based upon Sylvia Nasar’s biography of the same name. Nash earned a doctorate from Princeton University in 1950 and developed what would decades later become known as the Nash equilibrium theory. At the age of 29, Nash was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and spent the next twenty years suffering from delusions and hallucinations, being involuntarily committed several times.  Nash recovered enough in the 1970’s to gradually return to teaching mathematics at Princeton University, where legend has dubbed him, “The Phantom of Fine Hall.” [wikipedia summary]

  • Sylvia PlathSylvia Plath was a poet, novelist, and short-story writer, known for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, which chronicles the mental breakdown of a bright college student at Smith after interning at a fashion magazine.  Plath, a mother of two young children, succeeded in killing herself after several prior suicide attempts during college and a brief stay at an institution where she had received electroconvulsive shock treatment.  Gwyneth Paltrow plays Sylvia Plath in the film, “Sylvia,” which focuses on Plath’s marriage and untimely death. [wikipedia summary]

  • Judy CollinsJudy Collins, singer and songwriter, struggled with bulimia during the 1970s and has discussed her history of purging in an interview.  She has also written a book entitled, Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival, and Strength, which chronicles her journey as a survivor of depression after the suicide of her 33-year-old son in 1992. [text from]

  • Lionel AldridgeLionel Aldridge, a defensive end for Vince Lombardi's legendary Green Bay Packers of the 1960's, Aldridge played in two Super Bowls. In the 1970's, he suffered from schizophrenia and was homeless for two and a half years. Until his death in 1998, he gave inspirational talks on his battle against paranoid schizophrenia. His story is the subject of numerous newspaper articles. [text from]

  • Janis JoplinJanis Joplin was a blues-rock singer-songwriter who rose to prominence during the 1960s and was famous for the raw quality of her voice.  She died in 1970 from a drug overdose at the age of 27; her addictions to heroin, amphetamines, and alcohol throughout adolescence and young adulthood were well known.  She has posthumously been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.  Rolling Stone has also ranked her as 28 of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. [wikipedia summary]

  • Tom HarrellTom Harrell has been called the John Nash of jazz. Against considerable odds, including pronounced tardive dyskinesia, Harrell has successfully struggled with schizophrenia and become one of the most respected jazz trumpeters and composers of the past 30 years. [text from]

  • Kay Redfield JamisonKay Redfield Jamison is a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, a leading researcher on bipolar disorder, and a noted author. She has been awarded the Best Doctors Award in the United States, and Time magazine awarded her Hero of Medicine. In Jamison’s memoir, An Unquiet Mind, she revealed her own experiences with manic depression, which included psychotic features. Jamison has appeared on television programs and given public interviews to bring more public awareness to mental illness.[text from]

  • Patty DukePatty Duke is an Academy Award-, three-time Emmy Award-, and two-time Golden Globe Award-winning actress of stage and film.  In addition to abusing alcohol and other drugs, Duke was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1982, and its treatment has put her on the road to recovery. Duke has since become an activist for numerous mental health causes. [text from wikipedia]

  • Richard SimmonsRichard Simmons is the flamboyant diet-and-exercise hawking flab fighter guru. In his autobiography, Still Hungry After All These Years, Simmons candidly discusses his battle with bulimia, anorexia, childhood traumas, ill health, and semi-poverty. [text from]

  • Margot KidderMargot Kidder, an actress best known for playing Lois Lane in the “Superman” movies of the 70s and 80s, was first diagnosed with schizophrenia in her twenties and, more recently, bipolar disorder, after a widely publicized manic episode in 1996.  Kidder was found by Los Angeles police in a distressed state and placed in psychiatric care. She is now doing well with medication and alternative therapies.  [text from wikipedia summary and]

  • Billy Joel Billy Joel is a six-time Grammy Award-winning rock musician, pianist, and singer-songwriter.  The sixth best-selling recording artist in the United States, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.  Joel battled many years with depression, and in 1970, left a suicide note and attempted to commit suicide by drinking furniture polish, saying later, "I drank furniture polish. It looked tastier than bleach.” He received inpatient psychiatric care for depression after being rushed to the hospital by his drummer and placed on suicide watch.  His suicide note later became the lyrics to his song, “Tomorrow is Today.”  Joel later recorded “You’re Only Human (Second Wind)” as a message to help prevent teen suicide.  Joel nonetheless continued to have problems with depression and alcoholism.  In 2002, Joel entered a substance abuse and psychiatric center, and in 2005, he checked into the Betty Ford Center, where he stayed for 30 days.

  • Karen CarpenterKaren Carpenter was a successful singer and drummer during the 1970’s.  She died in 1983 from a cardiac arrest induced by years of anorexia nervosa and laxative, emetic, and thyroid replacement medication abuse, which weakened her heart, digestive, and nervous systems. The Carpenter Family Foundation raises money for anorexia and other eating disorders. [wikipedia summary]

  • Jane Pauley  Jane Pauley, NBC news broadcaster since the age of 25, has been candid about her depression and bipolar illnesses. In her book, Skywriting: A Life Out of the Blue, she discusses her childhood and family problems and how medication helped to control her mood swings.[text from]

  • Adam AntAdam Ant is an English musician, and one of the seminal figures of post-punk new wave and alternative rock music.  Ant has candidly talked about his experiences with severe depression.  He was also ordered to receive psychiatric care after some minor collisions with the law, reportedly the result of hypomanic episodes.  In 2004, The Royal College of Psychiatrists started the “Changing Minds” campaign to eliminate stigma surrounding mental illness, in which Ant has participated.  Ant’s intention to join the campaign was to encourage more famous people to talk about their experiences with mental illness.  [text from and wikipedia summary]

  • Shawn Colvin  Shawn Colvin, a folk singer and winner of two Grammy Awards, has talked about her struggle with depression.  Colvin has suffered from major depressive disorder for more than 20 years. "During the worst times, I shut the world out, refusing to get out of bed. Even the smallest tasks were overwhelming," she said.[text from]

  • Linda HamiltonLinda Hamilton, an actress known for her part with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the “Terminator" movies, shared publicly in 2005 that she suffers from bipolar disorder. She revealed that her condition destroyed her marriage to her first husband, admitting that she abused him verbally and physically.  Linda said that it was her love for her two children that finally forced her to seek treatment, and she began taking medication in 1996. She regrets the pain that she has caused her loved ones and is grateful that she chose to seek help. [text from wikipedia]

  • Carrie FisherCarrie Fisher, at the age of 21, played Princess Leia in “Star Wars.” Her passion now is writing. Fisher is the author of the best-selling book, Postcards from the Edge, a semi-autobiography of her time in rehabilitation for substance abuse. Also diagnosed with manic depression, she initially refused treatment, which resulted in dire consequences. Now Fisher is determined to help others avoid the mistakes she made by not getting treatment. In 2002, Fisher, Rod Steiger, and Maurice Bernard were honored at the Erasing the Stigma Leadership Awards luncheon for their commitment to speaking the truth about mental illness and braving national scrutiny to share their personal experience. [text from]

  • Dorothy HamillDorothy Hamill, the 1976 Olympic figure skating champion, discusses her history of depression in her book, A Skating Life: My Story.  Many relatives on both sides of her family were also depressed, and she believes this in part accounts for her strained relationship with her mother, whom she characterizes as having “a lot of negative feelings” and who failed to convey pride in her daughter’s accomplishments.  After two divorces, the death of her first ex-husband, a bitter custody dispute, and the bankruptcy of her Ice Capades business, Hamill wanted to kill herself.  She kept herself going with the thought of needing to care for her daughter, who now as a young adult, also struggles with depression.  Although Hamill is no longer suicidal, she must continually battle her depressive symptoms.  "It's all I can do to get off the couch or, you know, can't even unload a dishwasher. I mean, it really is debilitating," she said. [summary from]

  • Brooke Shields  Brooke Shields, a model and actress, talked about her disabling postpartum depression in her newly published book, Down Came the Rain: My Journey through Postpartum Depression. Shields reported she first had difficulty bonding with her baby and later thought about hurting her baby and even killing herself. She was able to gain a significant improvement in her mood through medication and the help of a skilled nurse-helper who recognized her problem and encouraged her to get help.[text from]

  • Tracey GoldTracey Gold is an actress, known for her work on the television series “Growing Pains,” who is now recovered from anorexia nervosa, with which she struggled during the late 80’s and early 90’s.  Her lowest weight was reportedly near 80 pounds, and she was suspended from the television show for her skeletal appearance.  Now that she is recovered, she speaks to young women about the dangers of eating disorders. [wikipedia summary]

  • Mary Kate OlsenMary Kate Olsen is an Emmy Award-nominated actress, producer, fashion model, and fashion designer.  In mid-2004, following a period filled with speculation, shock, and concern regarding her weight loss, Olsen announced she had entered treatment for anorexia nervosa.  Mary-Kate also stated in a 2003 interview that she suffers from Attention-Deficit Disorder, commonly known as ADD. The actress said at the time, "I get extra time to take the test because of my ADD. Everybody's brains works differently, and I just need longer for things to register.”  [text from wikipedia]