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Mental Illness and Writers



On the 31st of January, an article appeared on the UK Guardian website written by writer Chimamanda Adichie.

It was a personal account of her battle with depression. Sadly, its publication seems to have been a mistake and The Guardian took the article down the next day.

Apparently, according to Adichie’s team, The Guardian did not have the go ahead to publish the article.

Though the article has been taken down, according to the press statement, Adichie has no plans to hide her illness, but had wanted to wait to release the article so it might be part of a holistic effort to help people, especially other Africans, with depression.

The statement said, “The essay will be republished properly later this year. Chimamanda thanks all the people who have already shared their own stories of depression. She hopes that knowing you are not alone will be a source of comfort. She will speak more on the subject in the coming months.”

I read the article that Sunday and thought about it for most of the day.

There were two things that stood out for me.

First was the point she made that many Africans think depression is a disease only for people in the West.

This is why many Africans suffer in silence when help is out there.

I think this is one of the things she feels she can address from her public platform as such a successful writer.

The other thing I found a bit more interesting was her fear that maybe her depression was what allowed her to be a creative person.

That fear is what also made her reluctant to take the medicines that might control her mood swings.

She feared that it might stop her from being a creative writer, the most important thing to her.

This reminded me of K Sello Duiker, the author of the amazing book Thirteen Cents. He committed suicide at the age of thirty after suffering from bipolar disorder.

He was depressed and felt the cause was the medicine which was stopping him from being able to write.

According to him the medication was “taking too great a toll on his artistic creativity and joie de vivre” so he stopped taking it.

In October 2012, Swedish researchers published findings in The Journal of Psychiatric Research that there is a link between creativity and mental illness and that writers had an increase in depression and suicide.

In the paper it says, “Authors also specifically were more common among most of the other psychiatric diseases (including schizophrenia, depression, anxiety syndrome and substance abuse) and were almost 50 per cent more likely to commit suicide than the general population.”

Poet and author of The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath, suffered from depression and tried to commit suicide on numerous occasions but then sadly succeeded in 1963.

In 2001 James C Kaufman even coined a phrase “The Sylvia Plath Effect” that suggested that poets were more susceptible to depression than other writers.

Leo Tolstoy suffered with depression for a large part of his life.

He wrote the book A Confession in which he analyses his own depression.

Virginia Wolf also suffered with depression from the age of fifteen.

She eventually committed suicide in 1941. Earnest Hemmingway is suspected of having bipolar disorder.

He mostly avoided any attempt by the medical community to assist him.

In 1961 he agreed to electroshock treatment, but in the same year he committed suicide.

A study done in Hungary in 2009, uncovered a mutation of a certain gene that increases creativity but also makes the person more susceptible to mental illness such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

According to the research: “People with two copies of the neuregulin 1 mutation – about 12 per cent of the study participants – tended to score notably higher on these measures of creativity, compared with other volunteers with one or no copy of the mutation.”

Are creative writers more susceptible to mental illness? Perhaps.

But what about the assertion made by some creative people that drugs for mental illness suppress creativity?

If you visit forums for people on antidepressants their comments make you believe that might be the case.

Is it a choice that creative writers who suffer from depression have to face: to take their meds or to be creative?

That seems very sad if that is the case.

I suspect later in the year we will hear more on this issue as Chimamanda Adichie has promised us.