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5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illnesses & the Impact It Had on Their Art

While mental illness isn’t a prerequisite for producing great art, some evidence suggests that there may be a connection between it and creativity.

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Some of the first research connecting creativity with mental illness was conducted in 1987, when Dr. Nancy Andreasen of the University of Iowa noticed a higher occurrence of bipolar disorder in study participants from the Iowa Writers Workshop than in a control group. A decade later, Dr. Arnold Ludwig of the University of Kentucky examined the relationship between mental illness and cultural influence through a retrospective study; his findings indicate that people in artistic professions are more likely to have mental illnesses than those in non-creative professions. More recently, researchers have considered links between the neurological similarities of mental illness and the creative mind. In particular, illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia appear to be focused within the frontal lobe of the brain. Aberrant activity in the frontal lobe likely to cause a person to make peculiar connections — the same types of connections often found in poetry and other forms of creative writing.

In 2002, Dr. James Kaufman of California State University in San Bernardino conducted a retrospective study of 1,629 writers that showed poets — specifically, female poets — were more likely than non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to have some type of mental illness. As such, the link between creativity and mental illness is frequently referred to as “The Sylvia Plath Effect.”

Fittingly, Plath is the first entry on our list of writers who suffered from mental illness. This list details a few authors who have ascended to greatness, but who, whether privately or publicly, also suffered from what were often debilitating mental illnesses.

1. Sylvia Plath

While still in college, Plath plummeted into depression and was hospitalized and treated with shock therapy. She described her hospitalization as a “time of darkness, despair, and disillusion — so black only as the inferno of the human mind can be — symbolic death, and numb shock — then the painful agony of slow rebirth and psychic regeneration.”

The poet made multiple suicide attempts before eventually succeeding in 1963. She consulted physicians that same year and complained of severe depression, even speaking about her numerous failed suicide attempts. Her doctor prescribed an antidepressant and acknowledged that she was, indeed, severely clinically depressed.

Plath was also known, among friends and colleagues, for her frequent mood swings, tendencies toward impulsivity and a mercurial temperament. She was easily plunged into dejection by even the smallest rejection or perceived failure. Her poetry deals with shock treatment, suicide, self-loathing and dysfunctional — all subjects with which she had firsthand experience.

2. Ezra Pound

Pound was placed in a hospital for the criminally insane following his 1945 arrest for treason. During his 13-year stint at the hospital, he was formally diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). While NPD is not considered a major mental illness, it may have influenced much of the poet’s work and certainly his behavior. Pound was outspoken about his ideas on poetry and politics, and some critics have credited his development of the ideogrammatic method with NPD. Pound was also diagnosed with schizophrenia, though it is debatable whether or not he was truly afflicted with the illness.

Common attributes of schizophrenia — among them disorganized and divergent ideas and paranoiac thought — have been related to creativity. A 2010 study revealed that both creative people and schizophrenics have a lower density of dopamine receptors. This may account for why, in both cases, the brain is less aggressive at filtering out information and could yield the ability to make interesting connections. It may also relate to why, when Pound was finally released from the mental hospital, he immediately returned to what he considered Mussolini’s Italy and proffered a Fascist salute, saying, “All America is an insane asylum.”

3. Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy produced an insightful book in which he explores his own depression and general discontentedness toward his contemporary world: A Confession.Noticeable signs of depression didn’t strike Tolstoy until middle age, but the illness came on with a vengeance. The author considered becoming celibate, questioned his religious beliefs and began giving away his possessions so that he could live like a peasant.

For Tolstoy, rumination — a cornerstone of major depressive disorder — accounted for his evolving ideas on philosophy, life and art. Correlation studies show that both those in the creative arts and those with depressive disorder spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating their own distress. At one extreme point, Tolstoy even considered himself a moral failure because he lacked the courage to commit suicide: “The possibility of killing himself has been given to man, and therefore he may kill himself.” But ultimately the author found god, overcame his existential malaise and gave up the notion of suicide, living to the age of 82.


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