The Mental Health Struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is January 18, and a national holiday, one in which we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many wiser than me have opined on his legacy and it’s countless unfulfilled parts, and I won’t attempt to do so here. Suffice to say, I would encourage you to visit The King Center for more information on his life and his continuing mission. 

One of the under-explored aspects of Dr. King’s life is his mental health – and challenges therein. It’s something which, candidly, I never realized, but according to multiple accounts, Dr. King struggled with his mood and experienced significant highs and lows. I didn’t realize this, but Dr. King actually attempted suicide. He also missed time in high school that was attributed to his mental health struggles.

Furthermore:

As an adult, Rev. King experienced bouts of severe depression. The stigma against individuals with mental illness, which we still battle today, was even more profound in the 1960s. Concerned that people opposed to the civil rights movement would use it as a way to try to discredit him, his incidents with depression remained a closely held secret during his lifetime.

We have, of course, come a long way. I would hope that the words of Dr. King – that we must never fail to be loud in our battles for a better world – would serve as an inspiration for us all. I would certainly hope they inspire us to fight for better mental health, but particularly for minorities, who we know are far, far more likely to suffer from serious mental illness and less likely to get the treatment they need and deserve.

However, for those of you who draw inspiration from the life, struggles, and legacy of Dr. King, I ask you take a moment to additionally appreciate his struggles. This man was a suicide survivor. He survived at least one attempt on his life before being killed. He was under constant physical threat and arrested 29 times.

And yet…here we are, more than 50 years after his death, writing about the sections of his dream that were completed, and the large swaths of his legacy that remain unfulfilled.

Dr. King was someone special, a man of immense talent and power. But he only found who he was because he lived to see it. Because he didn’t die when he attempted suicide. Because he fought his demons. None of us are any more special than anyone else when we are born…we simply make ourselves into who we become. Look what Dr. King made. Look what you can make as well.

I wish I knew more about Dr. King and his mental illness, and I plan on doing more research into the subject. But I will say that there is clearly enough evidence to indicate that Dr. King suffered extraordinarily from depression. May his legacy serve to remind us to better care for all, but particularly those who are clearly still suffering from so much pain that they don’t deserve. 

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