Creativity and Depression: Is there a Link?
This past week two friends ended their own lives. It’s on my mind. I am trying to make sense of a senseless act, while fully (perhaps jarringly so) understanding the feelings that can lead to this decision. I wonder if there is a link between creativity (those actually actively participating, not just passively imagining), and suicide. So here are my thoughts.
Aristotle said, “There was never a genius without a tincture of madness.” It has long been observed that creative artists and writers seem to have a high prevalence of depression and alcoholism. Depression has afflicted writers almost twice as often as those with other high creative achievements. (Post, p1) However, psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison writes, “To assume, then, that such diseases usually promote artistic talent wrongly reinforces simplistic notions of the ‘mad genius.’ But, it seems that these diseases can sometimes enhance or otherwise contribute to creativity in some people.” Writing is an important outlet for creative people who suffer from depression, alcoholism and other types of mental illness. Whichever comes first, the “dis-ease” or the creativity, there is a consistent link in the two in many creative writers. This is shown dramatically in the life and works of Dylan Thomas, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edgar Allen Poe, and Tennessee Williams.
Are creative genius and mental disease related? Simonton, Ph.D. of the psychiatric Times says, “The idea that creativity and psychopathology are somehow linked goes way back to antiquity – to the time of Aristotle.” Goertzel of the Post appears to agree, saying, “Depression seems to be the most common symptom [among creative artists], along with the correlates of alcoholism and suicide.” Reports state that “rates of … psychopathological symptoms appear to be higher among eminent creators than in the general population. (Ellis, 1926; Raskin, 1936 from Simonton, Ph.D.) “Even though there is some evidence that the lifestyle of creative activity can have adverse consequences for mental health (Schaller, 1997 from Simonton, Ph.D.) it remains the case that there may be a common genetic component to both creativity and psychopathology. (Ludwig, 1995 from Simonton, Ph.D.)
Arnold M. Ludwig, a retired professor of psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington. is well respected in the field of study of depression among creative artists. He looked at more than 1,000 famous artists in eight creative-arts professions and 10 other professions. “He concluded that psychiatric disturbances were much more common among the artists. Dr. Ludwig found that roughly 20 percent of eminent poets had committed suicide, compared with a suicide rate of 4 percent for all the professions he examined. The suicide rate in the general United States population is around 1 percent, he said.” (Lee)
Although there is a disagreement about the conclusion, the data suggests a connection between creativity and madness. Research from Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Touched with Fire”, illustrates an interesting paradox: “Creative people need intense emotions to inspire their work and madness comes in part from emotional instability”, which are manifested by intense emotions. It is in this example that it becomes clear that a relationship exists between art and “madness”. The “madness” can be expressed through various symptoms including alcoholism, mental illness in particular depression, bipolar disorder, and suicide.
Alcoholism seemed to be a greater problem for 20th century American writers. Shelley Widhalm of The Washington Times writes about high incidents of alcoholism in writers including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac, Stephen Crane, William Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, Thomas Woolfe, James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, Tennessee Williams, Hunter S. Thompson and Edgar Allan Poe. Writers who committed suicide are Hunter S. Thompson, Ernest Hemmingway, Jack London, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Virginia Woolf.
Higher rates of mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, among creative writers have been noted. Writers with depressive disorders (I am listing only those included in our assigned reading) include Dylan Thomas (died of alcoholism), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, (Hospitalized for post partum depression), Edgar Allan Poe (suicide attempts), Emily Dickinson, Tennessee Williams, (hospitalized for depression, alcoholism and drug addiction), William Faulkner, (hospitalized for depression and alcohol abuse), Theodore Roethke, (hospitalized), William Blake, Lord Byron (AKA George Gordon), Percy Bysshe Shelley (suicide attempt), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, TS Eliot (hospitalized), and Henrik Ibsen.
There seems to be a relationship between bipolar disorder and alcoholism among writers, perhaps as writers attempt to “self medicate” with alcohol. Writers may drink because when they are depressed they cannot get themselves to do their work and when the are manic they can’t harness their writing. Alcohol can be used to either stimulate the flow of ideas or to calm the writers enough to produce.
In addition to drinking and using drugs to excess, individuals with depressive and manic-depressive illness are also far more likely to commit suicide than individuals in any other psychiatric or medical risk group (Jamison pg. 41) A recent review of 35 studies found that on average one-fifth of manic-depressive patients die by suicide. The list includes many more prominent and famous writers and poets not mentioned above.
Focusing on four of my favorite writers from this course, I noticed the common thread in all is depression. Three of the writers used alcohol to attempt to control their malady and the same three used some form of drugs to attempt to find relief. All except Charlotte Perkins Gilman seemed to experience a life long recurrence of depression and each was in some fashion responsible for their own death.
Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea, West Glamorgan, in Wales. He was a neurotic, sickly child and had little formal education. He acquired his love of words and rthyme from his father, a Literature teacher. He was quoting poetry by age five and published his own works by age twelve. He married Caitlin Macnamara and settled at Laugharne in Wales. The marriage was stormy. By the thirties Thomas had gained some notoriety from his poetry, radio shows, readings and unfortunately, his flamboyant bouts with alcohol. His depression had become quite intense and he teetered between insecurity of losing everything, and arrogant confidence. In 1947, Thomas suffered a mental breakdown, and moved to Oxford. Due to intense financial pressures he signed on to several tours, including the famous American tour. “The tours were financially profitable and he met such celebrities as Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin. At Chaplin’s, he was seen urinating on a plant.” (Thomas) Thomas’ father died in 1952. Thomas was at his bedside and wrote his most famous work “Do Not Go Gentle” to his father, urging him to fight death. Losing his father proved too much for Dylan as he didn’t live another full year past his father’s burial. Tragically, Thomas died at age 39, after a particularly hard bout of drinking, at St. Vincent’s Hospital. Even though Thomas was clearly alcoholic in his drinking, an autopsy performed after his death revealed that he did not suffer from serious cirrhosis of the liver. Technically this was not a suicide, but it is clear that his death was a direct result from his alcoholic behavior.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman is the only case that doesn’t seem to be a long-term depression. From all the data available, it appears that she was thrown into a prolonged post-partum depression after the birth of her daughter in 1885. She attempted to care for her child but sank deeper and deeper into a dark despair. By her own account, “For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia – and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went … to a noted specialist in nervous diseases… This wise man … put me to bed and applied the rest cure … saying… “never to touch pen, brush, or pencil again” as long as I lived. I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.” Finally with the help of a dear friend and following her own instincts, she went against the doctor’s orders and went back to work, pursuing her writing with a vengeance. She found her own cure in her work and as a warning to other women, she wrote a fictionalized version of her depression in “The Yellow Wallpaper”. She lived many happy years, marrying twice. The more she stood up for her own needs, the healthier she felt. She wrote extensively, always defending women’s rights. In 1934 Charlotte’s dear husband died and she was living with breast cancer. In 1935 she made the choice to end her suffering by killing herself with chloroform saying, “I have preferred chloroform to cancer” (Kessler, 1995, p40 from Beekman)
Edgar Allan Poe was clinically depressed and perhaps worse, insane. “The depression and madness Poe experienced was thought to be the cause of his addiction to alcohol and drugs.” (Black.) Poe was also known to have a brain lesion and heart trouble, which could have contributed, to his mental state. Poe was not ill all his life, but seemed to develop problems in his mid-twenties. The depression is evident in the letter he wrote to Mr. White “Ill health alone prevented me from [writing]… I was so ill as to be hardly able to see the paper on which I wrote” (Woodberry 71- Black). He attempted to self medicate with alcohol and drugs, but his system couldn’t withstand the abuse. He grew worse, with depression , alcoholism drug addition and brain and heart dysfunction which lead to his apparent madness. In a letter to Mr. Kennedy he wrote saying, “I am suffering under a depression of spirits, such as I have never felt before.” (Woodberry 76- Black.) He became addicted to opium, laudanum and morphine, presumably to deal with the pain from his brain lesion. During these period Poe would fluctuate between periods of intense work and absolute collapse. Clearly his work was brilliant, but at what cost? Poe’s death is shrouded in mystery. He disappeared in between the dates of September 29, 1949 until he was found October 3, 1849. He was found half-conscious, terminally ill, drunk and feverish and died on Sunday, October 7, 1849. It is not officially know how he died, but speculation says that it was as a result of his depression, alcoholism, drug addiction and perhaps a brain disease, which resulted in a fever. His last words were, “Lord, help my poor soul” (Mankowitz 242 from Black 2.)
Finally, Tennessee Williams, born Thomas Williams, was one of the great American Playwrights. He put himself through school, finally graduating when he was 27 from the University of Iowa. Williams used his own experiences in his plays, often writing about alcoholism, homosexuality and drugs. He often fought deep depression, which led to his dependency on alcohol and amphetamines. He wrote candidly about how his illness manifested itself in his writing process in the foreword of Camino Real, 1953 saying, “It is amazing and frightening how completely one’s whole being becomes absorbed in the making of a play. It is almost as if you were frantically constructing another world while the world you live in dissolves beneath your feet, and that your survival depends on completing this construction at least one second before the old habitation collapses.” In the 1960’s Williams’ life long companion died and he checked himself into a rehab program to detoxify from alcohol, amphetamines, and barbiturates. But the cure was not to last and he finally died of asphyxiation after a particularly heavy night of drinking on February 25, 1983.
It is clear that depression had an extremely destructive influence on each of these artists. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was the lucky one to find a way out and live a relatively sane life. The others, Dylan Thomas, Edgar Allen Poe, and Tennessee Williams are more indicative of the course that untreated depression in artist will follow. It is also clear that throughout all the pain that was endured by these artists, a great deal of work was put out.
So, which came first, the depression or the creativity? The evidence suggests that in most cases the dis-ease was present early in life, which led each person on a quest for an outlet or voice. Even in Ms. Gilman’s post partum depression, her creativity seemed to be triggered by her several year bout with depression. In most cases this creative outlet most likely prolonged what otherwise may have been an even earlier demise. But evidence also exists to suggests that the creative outlet of writing in itself led to an even deeper spiral toward an eventual path of destruction. Whichever is the truth, it is undeniable that, at least in these four great writers’ lives, the link between mental illness and creativity is clear.
Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)
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