Before I start this post, I want to state that I have no mental health problems that I know of. If you’re living with mental health issues and want help, please seek the advise of a doctor as I am by no means an expert in this field.
I had a thought the other day. There is a high coloration between writers and mental health issues. I can name several prestigious writers who have publicly stated they have mental health issues. In particular, depression is shared among writers along with bipolar and substance addition. You could argue that it has become a cliché. Reclusive writers sitting in isolation, willingly ignorant of the outside world.
Then I realized that thinking like that is very dangerous. You don’t have to have suffered to be a writer and I’m wary of the phrase “suffers” because of the negativity it implies. The idea also belittles those who have mental health issues. Yet it does seem that many writers afflicted with mental health problems. Is this idea justified or is it nothing more than a stereotype?
Research published by the BBC shows that there is a connection between mental illness and writers (link at the bottom of the post). Curiously this connection affects writers more so than other creative people such as musicians or painters. The research doesn’t tell us why there is a link or what causes it, only that it exists. Somewhat ironically, being a full time writer is one of the most desired careers in the UK according to a recent survey. Writing has been proven to be therapeutic and a good exercise to relieving stress.
Edgar Allen Poe is normally the first name that comes to most people’s mind when asked for writer’s with mental health issues. Poe was infamous for his pessimistic nature, he had clinical depression and alcoholism. Poe died wandering the streets of Baltimore, reportedly drunk but the exact details of his death are unknown.
Patricia Cornwell revealed in an interview with The Times that she has Bipolar disorder and that she is wired up differently to most people.
Virginia Wolf suffered with depression and bursts of anxiety throughout her life. After she lost her home in the Second World War she attempted suicide several times before sadly succeeding on 28 March 1941. She was aged thirty.
Stephen King wrote many of his classic novels high and drunk. He has been reported as saying he has no memory of writing Cujo. He ended his substance abuse when his family staged an intervention in the 1980’s. King has been sober since.
JK Rowling’s creatures the Dementors from the Harry Potter franchise were inspired from her bouts with depression. During the writing of her first novel Rowling had broken up from her first husband, living on benefits in Scotland and trying to raise her first daughter Jessica.
It is a very dangerous thing to believe that in order to be a writer you must have suffered at some point in your life. You can’t really know the pain unless you have experienced it. It’s sounds almost romantic doesn’t it? Battering with your inner demons to produce a master piece.
I can write about depression if I have not experienced it in the same way I can write a murder mystery novel without having committed a murder. True, I may not write about depression in as much detail as someone who has experienced depression but that doesn’t mean I can’t write about it. Likewise having mental health issues or substance addiction does not automatically make you a talented writer. Talent is a mixture of practice and hard work.
I get depressed after a rejection but not with a capital D. I sulk for a couple of days, maybe I throw a strop but it’s never anything serious. I’ll be fine in a while. I know writers who after a rejection retire into their homes and don’t emerge for weeks. I know other writers who shrug and carry on.
So what does all this mean? They are just a few examples some of which have happy endings. I don’t have an answer, nobody does. The research is ongoing. All I’m asking is that you treat people with mental health issues (writers or not) with kindness. To quote Wendy Mass
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” – The Candymakers, Wendy Mass.
Thank you for reading and I’ll see you next time.
Here is a link to a NHS article discussing the BBC’s research.