More on writers and depression

Posted by Stephany Aulenback

Maud’s musings on the connection between writers and depression the other day happened to coincide with my reading of Alice W. Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. Like Rebecca Caldwell in her Globe and Mail article on the subject, Flaherty mentions Kay Redfield Jamison’s research on the link between mental illness and creative writing. However, she emphasizes the important difference between manic depression (a disorder characterized by extreme shifts in mood from mania to despair) and plain old depression. Manic periods seem to trigger writing. And periods of depression seem to suppress writing; it is only when the mood of despair passes that the ability to write returns:

A surprising proportion of writers are manic-depressive. The pyschologist Kay Redfield Jamison, one of the foremost experts on manic-depression, has explored this phenomenon in depth. The work of Jamison and others shows that writers are ten times more likely to be manic-depressive than the rest of the population, and poets are a remarkable forty times more likely. Even student poets not diagnosed with mental illness have more manic traits than students who do not write poetry. Their mild traits, falling short of the full-blown disease, are what John Ratey and Catherine Johnson have called shadow syndromes.

During depression, people tend to write much less (and oddly, their handwriting tends to shrink in size). In fact, writer’s block is much more likely than hypergraphia to accompany depression. When depressed people do write, it is generally when the depression is agitated; that is, when it contains a mix of manic and depressed features. How, then, to explain the long tradition linking depression with the literary drive to create? This belief was written down as early as the fourth century B.C.E., when Aristotle famously asked, “Why is it that all men who have become outstanding in philosophy, statesmanship, poetry, and the arts are melancholic?” A major reason is that Aristotle, Plato, and other protopsychiatrists of that era closely linked melancholy to periods of “frenzy.” That is, they did not strictly distinguish manic-depressive (bipolar) illness from depression without manic periods (unipolar illness). Nor did medieval, Enlightenment, or even most nineteenth-century writers.

Nonetheless, recent work that does try to separate people with manic-depression from those with unipolar depression has found some link between unipolar depression and literary ability or interests, if not florid hypergraphia. Writers have more unipolar depression than the rest of the population; the same studies that found a ten- to forty-fold greater incidence of manic-depressive illness in writers found an eight- to ten-fold greater incidence of unipolar depression. So many writers write about their depression that it has become a genre with its own anthologies, such as the collection Unholy Ghost.

This link between writing and depression may stem in part from the fact that depressed people tend to be strongly introspective, a trait that may foster writing. Depression, when it does not incapacitate a person, may actually make him or her see the world more accurately than normal people do. (Of course, an accurately pessimistic view of the things can also be paralyzing.)

The connection between depression and writing may also reflect the fact that many people with episodes of unipolar depression write more once their depression has worn off. In some instances they feel that their ideas were triggered by their experiences when depressed, even though at the time they lacked the energy to write. In other cases, depression may trigger rebound periods of increased energy, even “hypomania” — periods of increased energy that are not intense enough to be truly manic. As you may imagine, psychiatrists and their clients often have strongly differing opinions about whether a state should be labeled manic or hypomanic. Many people with hypomania find it an extraordinarily productive and pleasant state, even as others may find the hypomanic person irritable or irresponsible.

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