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Mental Health & The Creative Mind

Vincent van Gogh's painting, "Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity's Gate)."

There’s a stereotype that the people that find their home in the creative realms are subject to suffering, and that stereotype most likely stems from our predecessors and our current creative heroes. Sylvia Plath and Vincent van Gogh both committed suicide after suffering from depression. Stephen King has suffered from depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction. JK Rowling has described her depression as “a numbness, a coldness, and an inability to believe you will feel happy again. All the color drained out of life.” And no, that is not a quote from when Harry Potter deals with dementors in The Prisoner of Azkaban, but it most definitely could be.

So besides a few celebrated artists, is there any truth to the saying that creative writers suffer more from mental illness than the non-creative? According to a study published in Comprehensive Psychiatry, there is. They ran a study comparing two groups: one of which was a group of successful creative writers, the other being a control group. They found that 73% of the writers were afflicted with a psychiatric disorder while only 20% of the control group was afflicted. Additionally, the study found that it might be genetic: 21.4% of the writer’s relatives had similar diagnoses while only 4.4% of the control’s relatives did, suggesting “a familial association between creativity and affective disorders.” So what do we do with this information? If creative writers are more likely to be affected by mental illness, why is that?

There’s no clear-cut answer, but there are many ideas as to why. Dr. Nichole Morgan, who received her doctorate degree from the University of Southern California, discusses this, offering ideas backed up by her research. Maybe it’s because writing is a solitary activity, and the feelings of loneliness manifest; maybe it’s because writers are demographically more likely to be women, who are more likely to be afflicted; maybe it’s because writers are so self-critical, crippling their self-esteem; or maybe it’s because writing can be viewed as a cathartic experience, and therefore it draws in people going through difficult periods.

Or—this is just my own hypothesis—maybe nobody knows why writers are more likely to suffer. Other than the fact that we all jot down a few words from time to time, what unites a group of writers, anyway? What can tie a 19th century poet and a 21st century contemporary fiction writer together? What similarities are there between Emily Dickinson and Dennis Johnson? I can’t find many, other than the fact that they both suffered in their lifetime, and that’s obvious from their writings.

And having depression or any other affective disorder is not a prerequisite for being a writer, but being able to apply insights to an everyday occurrence is. And if writers are the ones suffering from mental illness, then they are also the ones able to give the general public—specifically the 20% affected by psychiatric disorders—stories and poems that can serve as a source of comfort in their darkest moments, and sometimes those stories can stem from a writer’s own life experiences.

For example, Ned Vizzini’s novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, is based on the author’s own experience of being hospitalized for his depression. The book mixes humor with mental illness, creating an “utterly authentic” story that can speak to anyone, according to The New York Times. But between the humorous lines Vizzini writes are quotes that can speak to anyone undergoing a hard time, like: “Sometimes I just think depression's one way of coping with the world. Like, some people get drunk, some people do drugs, some people get depressed. Because there's so much stuff out there that you have to do something to deal with it.”

So maybe writers are more likely to be afflicted with the darkness of mental illness because they have the strength to turn those negative experiences into stories that can help the next person going through it. Maybe writers are the ones that have the strength to not only deal with depression, but have the talent to turn that battle into a piece that can be a source of comfort for readers everywhere.

If you, or anyone you know, needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255.

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