Throughout history, the inner trappings of the human mind have fascinated, perplexed, and escaped the multitudes. Much of the white-collared professional world have spent their entire careers attempting to unlock the mysteries that lay beneath the hair, skin, and bone where our brains seek refuge from the world. This sample essay combines psychology with literature and shows the range of subjects covered by writers at Ultius.
Lost in their own worlds: Writers and mental illness
“True, nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will say that I am mad?! The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute.” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Writings
One area of human culture that seems to display mental illness the most prominently is the area of fine arts. Artist, musicians, and writers have a long-standing reputation for being the most creative, abstract thinking, and curiously craziest group of individuals on the planet. Maybe the fact that they are constantly in the public’s eye is the reason we notice the deficiencies of these people. Maybe it is the fact that they are the public eye so much that they develop these problems. Because of the nature of their art, writers seem to show their mental issues with more transparency. Could it be the solitude in which they create their masterpieces that provides fertile soil where mental disorders flourish? Could it be the constant imprisonment in their own minds that causes them to lose touch with reality? Answering these questions is not easy.
Mental health statistics
The brain is the region of the body where invisible diseases lay. It is where mental illness comes out to play. The statistics surrounding this topic are plentiful, yet there is still much out there left to be researched. The list of mental disorders that have already been diagnosed seems endless and there are new disorders that seem to appear continuously. There is not really any other way to convey the number of people that suffer from mental health issues than by providing statistical information. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that:
- Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.
- Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—10 million, or 4.2%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.
- Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%. (NAMI)
The diagnoses of those who experience mental disturbances vary greatly. There are many types of disorders, each with their on individual sets of specific diseases. Some of the more common disorders include:
- Anxiety Disorders: generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and phobias
- Mood Disorders: depression, bipolar disorder, and cyclothymic disorder
- Psychotic Disorders: schizophrenia
- Personality Disorders: antisocial personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder
- Eating Disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder
- Impulse control and addiction disorders: pyromania, kleptomania, as well as alcohol and drug addictions (WebMD)
It should be noted that those afflicted with substance abuse problems often experience mental disturbances as well. When left untreated, these diseases contribute to, but are not limited to, hospitalizations, chronic medical conditions, educational and social problems, and death (NAMI). The NAMI estimates that Americans also lost approximately $193.2 billion in lost wages due to serious mental illness (NAMI).
Writers and mental illness hand in hand
In regard to the writing profession:
Popular culture has long stereotyped poets as depressed and creative scientists as mad. In fact, the idea of a link between creativity and mental illness goes back to the time of Aristotle, when he wrote that eminent philosophers, politicians, poets and artists all have tendencies toward “melancholia.” (Bailey)
The question that lies here is does creativity foster mental illness or do the mentally ill have a predisposition for creativity? In addition to the numerous types of psychiatric therapy, there is a plethora of information on this topic available for consideration, as well as many arguments for and against both questions, but there does seem to be a correlation of some sort.
Poets seem to suffer the most
One of the strongest statements that have been made on the topic of writers and their penchant for mental disorders is
“that creative people are slightly more at-risk, others have found more grave connections, such as that they are 30 percent more likely to have bipolar disorder.” (Bailey).
One argument is, according to Deborah Bailey’s article in the Monitor on Psychology, care of the American Psychiatric Association, mental illness
“disrupts the cognitive and emotional processes necessary for successful creativity” (Bailey).
Bailey also notes in her research that other scientists have found that
“poets—and in particular female poets—were more likely than fiction writers, nonfiction writers and playwrights to have signs of mental illness” (Bailey).
That statement in itself is a complete contradiction of the first.
Sylvia Plath’s battle with mental illness
One of the most famous writers in history who was known for her delicate mental state was Sylvia Plath. Born on October 27, 1932, Plath is best known for her poetry and prose. Her works include:
- The Bell Jar
By the time Plath had made some headway through college, she had suffered from great bouts of chronic depression that left her hospitalized (McCann). She attempted suicide on multiple occasions. Among her symptoms, friends and others reported she had:
- Mood swings
- Impulsive behaviors
- Sporadic temperament (McCann)
All of these symptoms seem to point to a mood disorder, which was likely bipolar disorder. Plath finally succeeded in taking her life in 1963 at the age of 31.
Mental illness and Virginia Woolf
Another female writer who suffered from chronic depression and other psychiatric symptoms is Virginia Woolf. Woolf was a novelist whose works include Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and A Room of One’s Own. Woolf had her first bout with depression at the age of 15, battling it throughout her life even being hospitalized in 1904 to treat the illness. Her creativity was frequently compromised by intermittent mood swings punctuated by sleeplessness, migraines and auditory and visual hallucinations (McCann). She experienced symptoms such as:
- Mood swings
- Auditory and visual hallucinations (McCann)
She exhibited symptoms of bipolar disorder, and possibly schizophrenia.
Female writers are not the only group that has experienced the wandering hand of mental illness. One of the most prolific writers in all of history, Ernest Hemingway, suffered from multiple diagnoses. Hemingway’s works include A Farewell to Arms, For Whom The Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Sun Also Rises. His diagnoses included:
- Borderline and narcissistic personality traits
- Bipolar disorder
- Alcoholism (McCann)
Hemingway was treated using a variety of methods and even accepted electroshock therapy in 1960 (McCann).
“A 2009 article published by the Association for Psychological Science revealed research that showed a definitive link between creativity and the neuregulin 1 gene, which is also closely associated with psychosis” (McCann).
Hemingway committed suicide successfully in 1961. Unlike Plath and Woolf, he did manage to live a considerably longer life despite the havoc wreaked on his mind and body due to his mental deficiencies and long-term abuse of alcohol.
Ezra Pound’s mental health
One final writer that stands out and should be mentioned in regards to mental illness among writers is Ezra Pound. He is best known for his works, which include Ripostes, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and The Cantos. In a life that nearly defines the “Nature vs. Nurture” argument, Pound was deemed criminally insane and spent thirteen years in an institution after being arrested in 1945 for treason (McCann). His diagnoses were narcissistic personality disorder, as well as schizophrenia. His symptoms included:
- Disorganized and divergent ideas
- Paranoiac thought
- Ideogrammatic methods attributed to NPD (McCann)
Whether or not he truly suffered from schizophrenia is still open to debate. Despite his tendencies toward being a narcissist by diagnoses, he did promote the work of other writers such as William Butler yates and Ernest Hemingway (Stock). Pound died in 1972 in Italy.
Whether creativity fosters mental illness or the opposite, it is clear that there is a direct correlation between writers and mental illness. History has proven that some of the most creative minds ever have seldom found peace in their art. It can almost be assumed that this is still an issue in modern society. Today as we read, write, and educate ourselves with a fierceness that goes unparalleled we must remember to care for ourselves as writers and care for those who write for us. We, as a society, should pay close attention to those who write for our enjoyment, and reflect on those who have not fared so well with their struggles. There are more Plaths, Woolfs, Hemingways, and Pounds among us, and it should be a civic duty to preserve our literary resources, which means acknowledging, treating, and maintaining a certain level of awareness of the emotional stability and physical well-being of those individuals whose hands diligently create them.
Academy of American Poets. “Sylvia Plath.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web. 11 June 2016.
Bailey, Deborah. “The ‘Sylvia Plath’ Effect.” Monitor on Psychology 34.10 (2003): n. pag. Web. 10 June 2016.
McCann, Kim. “5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illnesses & the Impact It Had on Their Art.” RSS. N.p., 2014. Web. 10 June 2016.
NAMI. “Mental Health By the Numbers.” NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 June 2016.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “Quotes About Madness.” Good Reads. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 June 2016.
Stock, Noel. “Ezra Pound.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 2016. Web. 11 June 2016.
WebMD. “Mental Health: Types of Mental Illness.” WebMD. 2016. Web. 10 June 2016.