Writers and the Mental Health Connection

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The average American cannot reach adulthood without hearing about the tragic lives of several writers. John Berryman, Emily Dickinson, Hart Crane, and Allan Ginsberg are favorites of the education system. Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Edgar Allan Poe have a large media influence. For every famous writer who appears to have a Utopian existence there seems to be an equally talented writer who struggles with mental illness, cannot cope with life’s challenges, and meets a tragic end: often self-inflicted. The field of psychology is singularly interested in the connection between writers and mental health. A quick check at PsycINFO for academic papers related to “creative writing” or “creative writers” registered over 1100 hits: nearly half of those since 2000. The nature of many of those research papers was rather surprising. Instead of delving into areas such as childhood, alcoholism, and drugs they attempted to find a connection between the act of writing or creativity and mental health. This paper deals with the three primary connections between writers and mental health as viewed through the psychological studies: creativity and madness, mental health evaluation through a writer’s words, and the “writing cure” controversy.

The field of psychology has made huge strides in the last 100-150 years. It is now known that the events of early childhood do not cause all mental health problems like it was believed for a time. However, events throughout a person’s childhood can play a major role in that individual’s mental health, personality, and coping skills. A quick look at some writers who endured tragic ends appears to validate the troubled childhood connection. For instance, Edgar Allan Poe, born in 1809, never knew his real father, and lost both parents by the age of two. He was raised by a wealthy family, but Poe had a tumultuous relationship with his foster father (neurotic poets). Sylvia Plath, born in 1932, lost her father when she was eight, after several years of ill-health. The conflicting emotions she had over her father’s death, along with internal pressure to achieve academically would affect the rest of her life (neurotic poets). Yukio Mishima, born in 1925, was raised by an overly protective grandmother until he was twelve. He “was not allowed to play with other boys, participate in sports, or even expose himself to sunlight” (toptenz). And his father, with a military mentality, destroyed any of Yukio’s manuscripts that he found.

The fore mentioned are just a small example. Further research showed that nearly nine out of ten writers who endured a tragic life equally had a tragic childhood. There are exceptions to the rule though. For instance, Emily Dickinson appears to have had a respectable, above-average childhood. Born in 1830, Emily’s parents were educated, and her father Edward Dickinson, attorney and businessman, would later become a representative in congress. Although Emily was described as shy and demure there did not seem to be any real social interaction problems until she mysteriously left Mount Holyoke Female Seminary after the first year of attendance. She soon restricted social interaction to family members, eventually becoming a recluse, and it is speculated that she suffered from some form of agoraphobia or anxiety disorder (neurotic poets).

Surprisingly, tragic childhoods are not a primary topic in the field of psychology when attempting to come up with a correlation between writers and mental health problems. Other little chosen topics are alcoholism and drug abuse. When you consider that alcohol and/or drugs became permanent fixtures in the lives of such writers as Poe, Crane, Hemingway, and Berryman it seems a bit unprofessional to exclude their effects as a major contributing factor in the correlation between writers and mental illness: not just a symptom.

I scanned nearly 100 academic papers on this topic, and reviewed about 25% of those, and each of them barely mentioned childhoods and consumption of alcohol and drugs by the writers (or did not include them at all). The three primary areas of discussion surrounding this topic, as previously stipulated, creativity and madness, mental health evaluation through a writer’s words, and the “writing cure” controversy. As I touch on each of the three primary topics you will begin to see a distinct pattern, the academics put a lot of emphasis on the act of writing in connection with the problem.

Creativity and Madness:

For the sake of clarity, the definition of creativity is the production of something original and valued. The definition of madness is self-destructive deviant behavior.

There are many who believe creativity and madness are two sides of the same coin. It is a widely held notion. Maureen Neihart, Psy.D., says, “Since the time of the Greek philosophers, those who wrote about the creative process emphasized that creativity involves a regression to more primitive mental processes, that to be creative requires a willingness to cross and recross the lines between rational and irrational thought.” For instance, Plato referred to creativity as a “divine madness… a gift from the gods” (quoted in Neihart). And Aristotle is recorded as claiming, “No great genius was without a mixture of insanity” (quoted in Neihart). Likewise, many modern claims echo the ancient beliefs. Albert Rothenberg, psychology professor at Harvard, states the following: “Deviant behavior, whether in the form of eccentricity or worse, is not only associated with persons of genius or high-level creativity, but it is frequently expected of them” (quoted in Neihart).

From the 1880s until the mid-1920s the medical profession believed the genetic causes of mental illness and genius were closely related (Lambroso). Lewis Terman’s research, published in 1925, broke away from the norm: suggesting that “people of high ability exhibited less incidence of mental illness and adjustment problems than average” (Neihart). Around the same period Freud was formulating the concept of psychoanalysis in Vienna. Freud was fascinated with great works and eminent creative personalities. Rothenberg states of Freud: “He believed that great works of art and literature contained universal psychological truths and that the study of artists and writers lives would reveal basic psychological truths in persons of heightened sensibility and talent” (Rothenberg). A slew of psychoanalysts and psychologists have continued to modify Freud’s work throughout the years in an effort to improve on the understanding between the close relation of creativity and madness. Unfortunately, the effort has spawned numerous theories, but nothing that garners universal acceptance.

One psychiatric belief is the prolonged acceptance that creative endeavors heal the creative individual. Several articles mention how Anne Sexton profited by her creative efforts. She was institutionalized for manic depression, and her therapist suggested she try her hand at poetry. Sexton gave it a try, and later claimed, “Poetry led me by the hand out of madness” (Neihart). However, the same psychologists forget to add that it was not a permanent fix. Sexton eventually locked herself in a garage with the car running and succumbed to carbon monoxide poison.

Creative and expressive therapies have made great strides throughout the subsequent years. They have proven to be a good tool in the mental health process as long as they are not the only tool relied upon.

The constant striving to understand the correlation between creativity and madness has yielded modern results as well. The three primary areas of correlation are as follows: “disturbance of mood, certain types of thinking processes, and tolerance for irrationality” (Neihart). Manic depression (also called bipolar disorder), dysthymia, and other major depressions are mental disorders that exhibit disturbance of mood. Research has shown that many eminent creative individuals believed to have had severe mood disorders later committed suicide. And yet, there is equal evidence to conclude that certain mood swings have helped the creative process. Creative individuals who are manic depressive have experienced rapid increase in goal-oriented activity, to include writing volumes, painting numerous canvasses, or performing several activities simultaneously. However, they also have a tendency to burnout, become impaired, and need hospitalization.

Lesser forms of depression have also shown positive creative results. Neihart states the following:

“Depression may slow the pace, put thoughts and feelings into perspective; and eliminates excess or irrelevant ideas, increasing focus and allowing structuring of new ideas. In other words, it may be that the cognitive processes associated with certain moods are the link between creativity and madness.”

And the clinical studies dealing with thought processes gave equally positive and negative results. The studies in the creative processes at Harvard under Rothenberg showed that the creative processes can turn into psychotic ones, yet psychotic thoughts predominantly cannot flow into creativity unless there is some abatement of the psychosis. However, Rothenberg’s research established that both psychotics and highly creative personalities use translogical types of thinking: their process of conceptualization extends beyond the normal range of logical thinking.

Additional studies have found cognitive similarities between writers and manic depressives. Schizophrenics were tested in the same studies but failed to exhibit the similarities.

Another factor strengthening the creativity and madness connection is derived from creative individuals themselves. Neihart claims, “Many artists report that their motivation for engaging in their creative endeavors is to work through, release, or better understand their own destructive urges.” Unfortunately, the tragic lives and suicides of writers like Sexton, Crane, and Hemingway testify to how fragile the boundary between creation and destruction truly is. Rothenberg and others contend the fragile boundary is more likely to break when creativity is used to control hostility instead of the joy of creation.

The Writer’s Words:

A variety of research has been conducted to ascertain whether a writer’s words can be a predictor of their mental health, and whether they are likely to attempt suicide. The study referred to the most was conducted by James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D, and Shannon Wiltsey Stirman, MA. They opted to compare 9 poets who committed suicide with 9 non-suicidal poets who were similar in age, gender, talent, and achievement. They reviewed approximately 300 poems that spanned the beginning, middle, and later years of the poets lives. There has been ample research to conclude that writers, especially poets, have a much higher rate of suicide than non-writers. Pennebaker and Stirman believed that such dramatic emotions would pour out into the writer’s work, and they designed their study to see if those emotions could be distinguished in the languages used. They equally tested two suicide models with a text analysis computer program.

Prior research has already indicated apparent style and topic swings in the writings of poets who committed suicide. M.A. Silverman and N.P. Will noted how Sylvia Plath’s poetry transitioned “from traditional forms and mediated images to a more personal expressive form over the years” (Pennebaker). And J.F. Hoyle and M.A. Long pointed out how both Plath and Sexton exhibited distinguishable attitude shifts regarding death (Pennebaker). However, most of the prior research was conducted on the work of one or two poets, and with no control group comparisons.

Pennebaker and Stirman increased the number of poets reviewed, added a control group for comparison, selected poems throughout the career of the poets, and included two distinct models: a social integration model and a feeling of hopelessness model. The results showed suicidal poets used far more first-person singular (I, me, my) words than the non-suicidal group. And in the hopelessness model the death variable (words relating to death) was significantly higher for the suicide group over the control group. The telling factor in both of these significant results was that they only showed the wide separation in the final comparisons near the end of the poet’s career (or life). There was no significant variation in the beginning and middle sections. Furthermore, post hoc exploratory analysis discovered another interesting trend. The suicide group scored much higher on the use of sexual words and connotations, not only in the final phase but throughout their careers. And the suicidal group scored less on communicative words (talk, share, listen, relate) than the non-suicidal group.

The results of the study appeared to validate the smaller studies. The authors of the study agreed that the results were not conclusive, but it was a step in the right direction.

The Writing Cure Controversy:

It was briefly mentioned earlier that Anne Sexton’s therapist encouraged her to try writing poetry as a therapeutic outlet. The practice of utilizing some form of creative outlet (writing, music, art, etc) has become widely accepted in the psychiatric and psychological fields. It has been utilized in a vast array of situations from special needs children to rape victims, from anger management classes to veterans with PTSD. So why is it still controversial?

The biggest controversy surrounding the writing cure is the ironic connection that it does not appear to work for specific groups of writers: primarily creative writers and poets. The image of the mad writer – Edgar Allan Poe, Hunter S. Thompson, and Emily Dickinson – continually clashes with the use of writing as a cure. And it has already been shown, in the case of Anne Sexton that the positive affects derived from her use of poetry as therapy was not permanent. She eventually killed herself. And yet, there are numerous cases showing prolonged benefits from therapeutic writing. I, personally, have used writing to work through physical disabilities as a veteran, as well as the loss of loved ones: some of which has lasted over 35 years.

James D. Kaufman and Janel D. Sexton of California State University at San Bernardino conducted a study involving the writing cure controversy. The research confirmed the mental health of non-writers faring better than writers, and that poets fared the worst among the writing categories: with female poets the worst of all. When they analyzed the differences between the writing categories they observed the only significant difference in writing styles was poetry’s lack of a narrative. The fractured method of poetry is much closer to the fractured thought processes of many mental disorders… and previous research has already shown a close connection between creativity and madness.

Along with the fractured thought process there are additional contributing factors that may apply to the high risk of poets and mental health. One factor might be a relationship between a person’s mental health and the expressive outlet they choose. Another factor might be the individual’s level of self-obsession, since poetry lends itself easily to the “me, myself, and I” artistic format. As for female poets scoring the worst, the feminine nature to dwell on the emotional aspects at greater length than males is a possible contributing factor. Likewise, females are generally more sensitive to interpersonal communication than males. And women seem to value cohesive groups and maintaining relationships to a greater degree than men. The combined factors appear to confirm that the sensitivity of females place them at a higher risk of depression. But how do the contributing factors relate to the writing cure?

The lack of a narrative is a prime concern but not the only one. A growing body of research regarding the therapeutic use of writing continues to mount. For instance, certain variables show more positive results than others. Using expressive writing to overcome or come to grips with a traumatic experience has a positive showing. Research also confirms that individuals who write about emotional topics show greater benefits in therapy than individuals who write about mundane topics. And there are dozens of other possible factors. Presently, no single factor can be confirmed for the significantly high risk of mental disorders among poets, or the negative relation to the writing cure. The growing evidence appears to confirm that it is a cumulative effect.

Conclusion:

The connection between writers and mental health cannot be denied. Study after study confirms a higher percentage of writers, especially poets, exhibiting mental health disorders, along with a higher rate of suicide compared to non-writers. Each of the three primary areas of study relating to writers and mental health conducted by those in the field of psychology addressed in this paper has successfully supported the hypothesis set forth by the researchers. Study results have shown a connection between creativity and madness. Study results have shown a connection between word use by writers and mental health. And study results on both sides of the writing cure controversy show certain types of writing have a therapeutic effect, yet writers seem to fare less than non-writers when it comes to the mental health benefits of writing. All three areas of study are interesting and worthwhile with regard to writers and mental health. Unfortunately, we have seen that no single contributing factor can be established at this time. And for that reason I find it rather odd that researchers in the field of psychology do not place equal emphasis on additional contributing factors like childhood, alcoholism, and drug addiction, to name but a few. I find it equally strange that researchers would rather blame the act of writing, in certain situations as seen herein, than the lifestyle or certain life experiences of the writer. However, one thing is certain, more research is necessary to establish the biggest contributing factors between writers and mental health disorders.

Works Cited

“Edgar Allan Poe.” Neurotic Poets. June. 2012. Web.

“Emily Elizabeth Dickinson.” Neurotic Poets. June. 2012. Web.

Kaufman, James C. and Janel D. Sexton. “Why Doesn’t the Writing Cure Help Poets?” American Psychological Association. 2006. Print. 268-279.

Neihart, Maureen. “Creativity, the Arts, and Madness.” Talent Develop. June. 2012. Web.

Pennebaker, James W. and Shannon Wiltey Stirman. “Word Use in the Poetry of Suicidal And Nonsuicidal Poets.” Psychosomatic Medicine. American Psychosomatic Society. 2001. Print. 517-521.

“Sylvia Plath.” Neurotic Poets. June. 2012. Web.

“Top 10 Writers Who committed Suicide.” TopTenz. June. 2012. Web.

“Why Attempt Suicide? Evidence from the Poetry of Suicidal Poets.” PsyBlog. June. 2012. Web.

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13 thoughts on “Writers and the Mental Health Connection

  1. alphajt June 24, 2017 / 8:26 am

    Well researched, informative, and interesting. Excellent post, JW.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. MC Clark June 25, 2017 / 10:15 am

    I’ve always thought that writers, and others in the creative arts, were more adept at “sharing the madness” than was the general population, and that their respective crafts were an outlet. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that creatives have more emotional problems as a group; I have long suspected that to be the case. But the why of it I never linked to writing…always thought that the emotional issues stemmed from childhood experiences.
    Thanks for the enlightening read, JW.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jwtatfbc June 25, 2017 / 10:50 am

      They have found a correlation in all their studies, but they have never determined a primary cause. And the correlation might be as simple as creative personalities focusing more on their thoughts and feelings; and in many cases perhaps even becoming obsessed. But I think those thoughts and feelings probably come from outside factors, like childhood, illnesses, abuse, etc.

      Thanks for the response, Cathy.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. MC Clark June 25, 2017 / 2:09 pm

    Much to our detriment, we writers (generally speaking) tend to focus on the negative thoughts and feelings. It may make for good writing, but it can play hell with our state of mind.
    Again, I enjoyed the post, JW.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. poeturja June 29, 2017 / 5:59 am

    I used to say that when I’m happy, I cannot write. For some reason, blogging poetry has changed that. I have deliberately forced myself to write about my children, grandchild, and dogs. I look at nature and see the beauty (although I tend toward the food-chain aspect of it, at times). As far as love poetry, well, it’s fictionalized (the good stuff). This is a wonderfully enlightening post, JW!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jwtatfbc June 29, 2017 / 8:28 am

      I’m predominantly a positive person, which shows in a lot of my work. However, as a disabled Vet, I’ve used creative outlets to get through some bad times as well (like my perfectly imperfect & scars type poems). I seem to use my writing, art, and music to express all of my emotions.

      Thank you, Clarissa, for the heartfelt response.

      Liked by 2 people

      • poeturja June 29, 2017 / 10:29 am

        Thank YOU for touching our souls with your words…

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Poet Rummager July 22, 2017 / 1:22 pm

    I found your article fascinating, JW. Creativity and madness do go hand in hand I’ve always conceded. How many creative individuals would read these findings and see themselves in your words? Truly brilliant and well researched.

    Liked by 1 person

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