A couple of things come together recently that have inspired my writing of this small piece. The first is that in the last few weeks the UK Government has been discussing it’s plans for dealing with the important issue mental health.
The second is that I’ve been sorting through my book collection, preparing to sell a few to make some space. I decided to research one of the authors and discovered that he died early in his career – he suffered from depression and took his own life.
Mental health is a complex subject, there are many types of disorders, differing causes and plenty of literature and research on how best to deal with it. What fascinates me is the way that mental health is perceived by society as a thing to be hidden, yet we celebrate the creativity of those who struggle with their internal problems.
There have been many research projects looking in to the possible connection between mental health and creativity. From the entry Creativity and mental illness on Wikipedia…
Particularly strong links have been identified between creativity and mood disorders, particularly manic-depressive disorder (a.k.a. bipolar disorder) and depressive disorder (a.k.a. unipolar disorder). In Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Kay Redfield Jamison summarizes studies of mood-disorder rates in writers, poets and artists. She also explores research that identifies mood disorders in such famous writers and artists as Ernest Hemingway (who shot himself after electroconvulsive treatment), Virginia Woolf (who drowned herself when she felt a depressive episode coming on), composer Robert Schumann (who died in a mental institution), and even the famed visual artist Michelangelo.
Debates over mental health issues and the connection to creative ability are not over, there’s a long way to go as yet. However, it can be seen that there is, in many cases, a correlation. Even if creative ability is not directly tied to mental health, it can interfere with the ability already present.
Of all the differing mental health conditions, we are perhaps more aware of depression, both unipolar and bipolar. Some of the greatest works of art has been created by sufferers of depression. But still, it’s a hidden condition that’s shunned by society, to such an extent that we are not even aware that the works we admire so much have been created by people who suffered so much. Maybe it’s time that we admired the person along with their troubles, their strengths and what they have achieved.
“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” (source)
Depression, borderline and narcissistic personality traits, bipolar disorder and, later, psychosis coalesced to create Hemingway’s personal hell. Rather than turning to physicians or therapists for help, Hemingway used alcohol, engaged in risk-taking sportsmanship activities and wrote to cope. The author’s mental and physical health deteriorated so rapidly during the last years of his life — primarily due to alcoholism — that he finally accepted electroshock treatments in 1960. (source)
Walter M. Miller
I mention this author because the only book of his published in his lifetime, A Canticle for Leibowitz, has been very influential on Science Fiction and also a story I thoroughly enjoyed.
Miller was born in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Educated at the University of Tennessee and the University of Texas, he worked as an engineer. During World War II, he served in the Army Air Corps as a radioman and tail gunner, flying more than fifty bombing missions over Italy. He took part in the bombing of the Benedictine Abbey at Monte Cassino, which proved a traumatic experience for him. Joe Haldeman reported that Miller “had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for 30 years before it had a name”…
In Miller’s later years, he became a recluse, avoiding contact with nearly everyone, including family members; he never allowed his literary agent, Don Congdon, to meet him. According to science fiction writer Terry Bisson, Miller struggled with depression, but had managed to nearly complete a 600-page manuscript for the sequel to Canticle before taking his own life with a firearm in January 1996, shortly after his wife’s death. (source)
Playwright Williams, who wrote classics like The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire, suffered depression all his life, battled drug and alcohol addiction, and was briefly institutionalized in 1969. He was also deeply affected by his beloved sister Rose’s struggles with schizophrenia. (source)
J.K. Rowling’s life may sound like a rags-to-riches fairytale — unemployed mother writes bestseller, becomes billionaire — but she’s been frank about the severe depression underlying her experience, even talking about it on Oprah. She also created the famously horrifying Dementors to capture how depression really feels to a sufferer. (source)
There are many more authors who have battled their way through their own personal problems. Depression has either hindered or sparked their artistic abilities. While we celebrate their work, let’s remember that there are people around us now who are in need of our support and understanding.