Working with historian Joshua Shenk, author of Lincoln’s “Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness,” Vikram Jayanti’s documentary, “LINCOLN,” which premiered last week on the History Channel, reveals a side of our nation’s 16th president that too few of us ever saw in school. While the Lincoln we know and love battled fiercely to preserve the Union, he was often known to weep in public and “recite … maudlin poetry.” Even as he began reaching the heights of his early political career, many modern clinicians agree that Lincoln very clearly suffered from clinical depression and, like many other sufferers, more than once openly spoke of suicide.
For those who have suffered with depression themselves or along with a loved one, the exposure of Lincoln’s experience may be emboldening and symbolic of a growing societal understanding of the illness. However, even closer to home, it might bring a new perspective to the recent controversy that has emerged concerning the University’s curious policy on endangering behavior.
As The Hatchet reported last week (“Locked out: Lawsuit sheds light on endangering behavior policy,” Jan. 17, p. 1), current University guidelines seem to give the cold shoulder to students who seek counseling in University clinics for depression and suicidal ideation. In the case of former student Jordan Nott, the University kicked a suffering student out of campus housing, suspended him from the active academic pursuits that might have taken his mind off his pain and barred him from the “friendly” campus of the institution from where he had sought help. While Lincoln was able work through his struggle with depression, he didn’t do so alone, turning to his friends, family and community in his darkest hours; unfortunately, Nott did not seem to receive the same support from University administrators.
To be fair, this is not to suggest that GW is some uniquely monstrous, uncaring institution anonymously carrying out policies that even the minimally humane would find unjust. Indeed, the potential that a student might commit suicide on its watch can and have opened other universities up to incredible liability and have led other schools to create similar policies. Perhaps more importantly (we hope), these policies have also typically been put in place in an effort to avoid the havoc student suicide and self-endangerment wreck on fragile, close-knit student communities.
Even though many acknowledge these important “competing factors,” more compassionate responses to the threats posed by the self-endangering behavior of depressed students seem possible.
The University could, for example, be able to strike a legal deal with students that prevents GW from being held responsible for what students do to themselves in exchange for an institutional guarantee that services will always be available for depressed students who need them. While the provisions of such a guarantee and the services it may require would need to be determined by a body outside the administration, reasonable requirements could be levied that would ensure the protection of both student safety and University coffers.
Moreover, it remains unclear how removing suffering students from campus and supposedly out of campus life truly answers important community concerns. Kicking the depressed kid down the hall off of campus does not sever him from the community that surrounds him; it only pushes him off the scene, making his pain more mysterious and less approachable. A healthier University response might include better preparing the community for the realities of depression and, yes, even suicide. Community and individual problems are rarely solved by shoving them out of view and attempting to ignore them; they require collective responses, honest efforts to see the problem as it truly is and, above all, compassion for those who most require it.
Despite all his pain, suffering and even suicidal ideation, Lincoln, with the help of his friends, family and community, was able to emerge from the depths of his illness and become one of the greatest leaders the United States has ever seen. Never overcoming immense lows of his melancholy or the weight of his illness, there is good reason to believe that Lincoln ultimately triumphed because of them; the disease that burdened him also giving him a rarely seen “capacity for depth and wisdom.”
Without a sincere, compassionate change in the way the GW responds to student self-endangerment, the University will continue denying students who suffer from depression and voice suicidal thoughts a similar chance at greatness and, ultimately, may subject them to an unnecessarily grim fate.
-The writer, a senior majoring in political science, is a former Hatchet editor.
This article appeared in the January 26, 2006 issue of the Hatchet.