Martin Luther King's Manic-Depressive Illness: A Source of His Greatness and Despair

Nassir Ghaemi, MD, MPH


October 26, 2015

In This Article

Incomparable Stresses and Boundless Energy

The usual explanation would be that King was depressed because he had all these stresses. That doesn't mean he had an illness of depression.

The problem with this common-sense explanation is that it doesn't explain why the 12-year-old Mike King (his given name was Michael) jumped out of a second-floor window of his childhood home, on two separate occasions.

One might say that he had reasons why he made those attempts at impulsive self-harm: The first occasion was during a time when his beloved grandmother was injured, and the second occasion was shortly after she had died. However, this explanation doesn't explain why Dr King repeatedly was hospitalized throughout his life for periods of "exhaustion" where he could no longer function. He would lose interest in most things, was very low in energy, couldn't concentrate, slept too much, and ate too much. Medical workups were "negative" consistently: no medical cause could be found for these weeks of repeated "exhaustion." Prior historians have documented these episodes and attributed them to other causes in his life: he was tired of all his travels, "naturally."

He had plenty of reasons to be exhausted. Yet another observation can also be made: The symptoms that he exhibited during these periods of exhaustion meet the exact definition of clinical depressive episodes.

There is another aspect of Dr King's personality that hasn't been appreciated by previous historians. Most of the time, when he wasn't in an episode of "exhaustion," he was a very high-energy man. He only needed about 4-5 hours of sleep nightly, as noted, and yet he rarely tired. He traveled about 2-3 weeks out of every month, all over the country and the world. When he traveled, he would give multiple speeches and sermons daily, and repeated press conferences. Overall, he probably gave more than a thousand speeches annually. And this was his pace for most of his adult working life, for over a decade, from the late 1950s until his death in 1968. He was so energetic that when he traveled, his staff in Atlanta would send one young staffer to start a trip, and then replace that person with another staffer in the middle of the trip, because Dr King would wear out his younger travel companions.

Besides this markedly high physical energy, Dr King had high sexual energy, as is now known, with many sexual relationships with different women during his travels. He was also a very talkative man, who sometimes would stop to speak with a stranger for an hour or more, even though he was late to a public event. He was a very humorous man in private, a gifted mimic and comic who some thought would have made an incredible comedian had he decided upon a different career.

These features—decreased need for sleep, high energy, high sexual libido, marked talkativeness, and pronounced humor—are manic symptoms, and they are the complete opposite of depressive states. Yet Dr King was usually in the former state and repeatedly would go into the latter state. In other words, he had manic symptoms alternating with depressive episodes—a version of manic-depressive illness.


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