When Our Heroes Aren’t All Right: Writers and Mental Illness


Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven. Vladimir Mayakovsky put a bullet in his heart. Anne Sexton sat in her car until the exhaust took her. Sara Teasdale downed a bottle of sleeping pills. And Ingrid Jonker walked into the sea.

A friend and I were recently discussing our favorite poets and authors, and I came to the horrifying realization that many of my literary heroes committed suicide. Wikipedia even has pages that list their deaths: 140 for poets, 329 for writers. Though people who don’t write also suffer from mental illness, there seems to be some terrible relationship between the arts and mental struggles.

There are multiple reasons for this. Popular culture is one. It romanticizes the often troubled minds of writers. We portray creative people who die young and tragically as though they died because there was something in them too rare and too fragile to survive this world. Though I use ‘Tortured Artist’ as a tongue-in-cheek phrase, the relationship between those words has become codified in modern society. An artist – it is assumed – must be tortured in order to create art.

Lack of mental healthcare also contributes to the high number of deaths. Only in modern times have we begun to be able to understand and manage illnesses like depression. What kind of support did Marina Tsvetaeva have in Soviet Russia? What kind of support did Ernest Hemingway have in the US in 1961? Not enough.

Of course even modern medicine has not been able to resolve the deepest of depressions. Before his death, David Foster Wallace wrote that nothing offered relief from “the pain and feelings of emotional isolation that rendered the depressed person’s every waking hour an indescribable hell on earth.”

And depression may feel that way sometimes. But I worry that we have normalized pain and suffering as just another step on a writer’s path. This causes people to suffer more either because they think depression is an escapable fate or because they worry that without their suffering they will lose their connection to their art.

I like to believe that writers do not have to be in pain in order to describe beauty. I like to believe that misery is not a prerequisite of writing.

Our zeitgeist needs to disconnect romance and unhappiness. As Benjamin Moser says,

“A dead young writer is, above all, a dead human being. And for any human being, early death is a hideous reality. It is no more romantic than tuberculosis or syphilis, diseases once thought to confer a sexy allure on their victims…There is something grotesque about finding romance in drug abuse, or car crashes, or venereal disease. Far better to admire the writer’s real talent: for getting up every morning, going back to the desk, keeping at it, not dying.”

But for people stuck in cycles of depression, knowing that and living it can be two very different things. Society has made the connection between art and struggle, and it can be a difficult narrative to abandon.

After all, Sylvia Plath stuck her head in an oven.

Vladimir Mayakovsky put a bullet in his heart. Anne Sexton sat in her car until the exhaust took her. Sara Teasdale downed a bottle of sleeping pills. And Ingrid Jonker walked into the sea.

And we talk about their deaths as though they are beautiful.

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression or is having a difficult time, the following resources are free and available to people in the US. Please know that you are not alone.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or chat online

SAMHSA Treatment Referral Helpline: 1-877-726-4727 or visit the online treatment locator

For related studies, see:

Gould, Madelyn, et. al., “Media Contagion and Suicide among the Young,” American Behavioral Scientist 46:9 (2003), http://abs.sagepub.com/content/46/9/1269.short

Kaufman, James C., et. al., “Insane, Poetic, Lovable: Creativity and Endorsement of the “Mad Genius” Stereotype,” Imagination, Cognition and Personality 26:1 (2006), http://ica.sagepub.com/content/26/1/149.short

Waddell, Charlotte, “Review Paper: Creativity and Mental Illness: Is There a Link?” Canadian Journal of Psychiatry 43:2 (1998), http://ww1.cpa-apc.org/French_Site/Publications/Archives/CJP/1998/Mar/mar98_revpap1.htm

Image Attribution: ‘Fortepan’, Angela Botar, 1938.


16 thoughts on “When Our Heroes Aren’t All Right: Writers and Mental Illness

  1. Very interesting read. There is something about dying young or dying before you reach your potential that is so tragic, and our culture elevates people to almost a god like status when it happens. Musicians seem to suffer this fate as well as actors. And our culture claps and weeps at the same time when we lose them. I don’t know what is more tragic, the loss of life or the sudden macabre interest after the death. It is depressing. Perhaps it is a societal sickness. Sort of an interest in the unattainable? Or maybe fame causes a sense of isolation that causes self destruction in some of the more sensitive souls?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi there, again, a very thought provoking post. I think artists and writers tend to ‘suffer’ a bit more, because they need more meaning out of their lives and they attempt to get it from their creative endeavours. But I agree, the suffering shouldn’t need to be there to produce good work. I came across a US creativity coach called Eric Maisel, who has written extensively on this topic. In particular ‘The Van Gogh Blues’ addresses this very core issue and it made huge sense to me on reading and I found it very illuminating as well as reassuring. (A great topic)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for sharing. I appreciate you sharing these resources. I’m currently in a bout of depression. Wouldn’t hurt to have these resources at my fingertips. Thanks again. Take care. Peace out!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think going through depression and misery has helped me with my writing in some ways but only when I was reflecting back on it once I was in a better place emotionally. When I was at my lowest points my writing wouldn’t have been that good. I didn’t really have it in me to write at all. I also think the romanticism of depression/mental illness is problematic.

    Liked by 1 person

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