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10 people who didn't let their mental health issues stop them doing amazing things

12th May 2014

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The link between mental illness and genius is often touched upon – relentlessness at work, the need for isolation and an untamed creative flair are all characteristics that come up in discussion of both.

12th – 18th May is Mental Health Awareness Week, and to celebrate we thought we’d remind you of ten people, from contemporary actors to nineteenth century presidents, who have fought back at their inner demons and come out squarely on top.

For more information on Mental Health Awareness Week please visit the Mental Health Foundation here.

Charles Darwin
















Scholarly debates focus on what Darwin’s health issues actually were – his afflictions included hysteria and hallucinations, and were possibly symptomatic of agoraphobia, or hypochondria, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s likely we’ll never know, but in the midst of this instability he did manage to produce On the Origin of Species – which was a fairly admirable achievement, changing as it did our view of the natural world forever.

Stephen Fry









Stephen Fry has been extremely open about his battle with bipolar disorder and depression, which he described in 2006 as feeling like a “kind of sobbing and kind of tearing at the walls inside my own brain.” The actor and comedian wasn’t diagnosed until the age of 37, and he has spent the proceeding years speaking out, “to fight the public stigma and to give a clearer picture of mental illness that most people know little about."

Emma Thompson
















Stephen’s Fry close friend and fellow Cambridge graduate Emma Thompson also suffered from depression, after her divorce from Kenneth Branagh in 1995. She has spoken about the “voices in her head”, staying at home and forgetting to change her clothes, and how starring in Sense and Sensibility and meeting now husband Greg Wise on set brought her back from the edge.

Andrew Flintoff















Andrew “Freddie” Flintoff, has experienced depression and spoken about how it isn’t often acknowledged in sports – despite the estimated one in ten sportsmen that suffer from it. In his 2012 documentary Freddie Flintoff: Hidden Side of Sport, the former England cricket captain and Ashes winner took on the issue of depression within the “obsessive” sporting world.

John Nash











85-year-old mathematical genius John Nash is best known via the face of Russell Crowe in 2001’s multi-Oscar winning A Beautiful Mind, which depicted his paranoid schizophrenia – which he himself referred to as his “mental disturbances.” In 1994 he was rewarded with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science.  

Michael Phelps









Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps has a history of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) stemming from childhood – something that he was eventually able to control through focus on swimming. He is now the most successful Olympian of all time, with 22 medals to his name – 18 of which are gold.

















According to academic papers, the painter of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling had a “single-mindedness” and “pre-occupation” that was also seen in most other male members of the Buonarroti family. Alongside his enormous artistic talent, he is also said to have had difficulty forming relationships, even with family members – suggesting that he may have been suffering from some form of autism.

Charles Dickens












Reading his novels, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Charles Dickens might have suffered from some form of depression – and with a childhood spent in the hollows of a debtors’ prison, the conclusion seems increasingly likely. According to his contemporaries, he would fly into a “mania” with the completion of each of his novels.

Abraham Lincoln















Abraham Lincoln’s life is characterised by his leading of the US through possibly the most turbulent time in its history (“a house divided against itself cannot stand”) and by his untimely and violent death. It may be less known that he suffered from depression throughout, a condition that he is thought to have been genetically susceptible to.   

Jon Hamm




















He’s now best known as the most famous ad man in the TV world, but Jon Hamm suffered with depression in his early 20s, after the death of his father – which left him feeling “unmoored.” After therapy and medication, he made the realisation that, "You can change your brain chemistry enough to think, 'I want to get up in the morning, I don't want to sleep until four in the afternoon... Reset the auto-meter, kick-start the engine!"

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