Churchill’s Unlikely Source of Success: The Black Dog

Would you believe me if I said World War II may have been won as a result of something as simple as a black dog? No, not the black dog as in the barking canine. The term “black dog” was made infamous by Winston Churchill when he used it to describe his periods of depression. The term is still in use today as synonymous with depression.

Churchill was born into a family that had a history of mental illness. His father had symptoms of schizophrenia and his daughter was also diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Churchill referred to his own mental illness, as his “black dog” (NAMI). Churchill used his experience with depression to construct a realistic analysis of the different threats from the warring states during World War II. It was his depression that convinced him of Hitler’s threatening outlook and intentions. While the rulers before Churchill tried to appease Hitler, hoping that it may be enough to stop the war, Churchill actively resisted Hitler’s regime (NAMI). Because of his “black dog”, Churchill had enough insight to realize that Hitler could not be stopped through the simple means those before him had attempted.

His psychiatrist, Anthony Storr, also explained how Churchill used depression to help him make vital political decisions. Storr states, “Only a man who knew what it was to discern a gleam of hope in a hopeless situation, whose courage was beyond reason and whose aggressive spirit burned at its fiercest when he was hemmed in and surrounded by enemies, could have given emotional reality to the words of defiance which rallied and sustained us in the menacing summer of 1940.”

As the National Alliance of Mental Illness states, “It was Churchill’s experience with mental illness that ultimately allowed him to be a successful leader…Churchill’s depressive realism helped change the course of world history. He not only refused to submit to his black dog, he was able to use it to his advantage.”  Churchill’s example is a wonderful illustration of learning from, overcoming, attaining strength, and reaching success from a mental illness. As Churchill himself says, “Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts”. Churchill’s courage to overcome his black dog of depression may very well have changed the course of history forever.



NAMI. “Winston Churchill and his “Black Dog” that Helped Win World War II.” . National Alliance on Mental Illness, n.d. Web. 4 May 2014.

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