Weekly Musing: Madness and the Written Word – Part One

Note: This is part one of two posts regarding mental illness, creativity, and writers. Part one discusses what research has to say on the subject. Part two will relate my own personal experiences.

 When people hear the word writer most immediately think of a tortured, mad, insane, person who toils away in poverty. One day he or she dies, usually by their own hand, their art undiscovered and unloved until revealed to the world post-mortem. This gives the impression all artists, especially writers, must have some form of mental illness. After all we’re in a profession where rejection is the maddening norm, characters talk to us all the time, and we imagine new worlds. As someone who is both a writer and has both depression and anxiety I got to thinking. Is this really true? Is there some correlation between creativity and mental illness? Are writers a bit more off the deep end than the general population?

Curious, I decided to do some research and see if there were answers to these questions. After I poked around the internet and discovered studies have indeed been done I came to the conclusion the answers were mixed. Some psychologists and psychiatrists have used control groups to study the matter. Others have examined retrospectively the lives of famous authors, both those who committed suicide vs. those who did not, to see if there’s a correlation.

One of the first in-depth studies was conducted by Dr. Nancy Andreasen in 1987. In her study she used participants in the famous Iowa Writers Workshop and examined them against a control group. Her results indicated a higher occurrence of mental illness in the writers than the control group. In particular bipolar disorders, depression, and alcoholism were higher for the writers vs. the control group.

In 1997 Dr. Arnold Ludwig concluded people in artistic professions were more likely to have mental illness. In his study he examined several different artistic professions studying biographies published over a 30 year period.

Following the method of retroactively examining the lives of famous writers, Dr. James Kaufman also concluded writers, in particular female poets, suffered from higher rates of mental illness. In fact the rate of mental illness was so noticeably higher than male poets and other kinds of writers of either gender it earned the nicknamed “The Sylvia Plath Effect” after the poet and novelist Sylvia Plath who committed suicide at the age of 30.

But do these studies show a correlation between creativity and mental illness? Does one cause the other? Articles I read disagreed. Some believed yes, while others, including one written by Dr. Albert Rothenberg, argued against drawing such a conclusion. Yes, some writers fit the stereotype of “mad” writer, but for every Sylvia Plath or Ernest Hemingway there are writers like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Anton Chekov who did not suffer from mental illness. Was they’re creativity affected by not having a mental illness?

There seems to this tendency to romanticize suffering from mental illness as fueling creativity. We see it as people turn to drugs or alcohol to jump start the muse. Other may refuse treatment because to receive help will interrupt the fire of creativity. I need to be able to feel pain and suffering dammit!

But for others, having mental illness and it being the sole source of creativity isn’t the case. For example, depression and anxiety, when more active, seem to suppress the level of creativity. When the mental illness is being treated, the writer’s stress level is low and he or she is in a “good place”, creativity usually flourishes. Other kinds of mental illness, like bipolar and schizophrenia may help creativity.

 

While the evidence seems to lean toward writing, creativity, and mental illness going hand in hand, it’s vitally important for every writer to realize 1) just because you are a writer it doesn’t mean you have a mental illness, and 2) if you do have a mental illness, do not ignore it. Do not eschew treatment. Suffering doesn’t make a person nobler or stronger. Suffering does not equal great art. Your mental illness is not responsible for your creativity. You, and you alone are responsible for your words.

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