We all know about famous writers who took their own life, including Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, John Kennedy Toole, and David Foster Wallace.
So it was a little chilling to read that a recent study found that writers are twice as likely to commit suicide as the general population.
When I wrote a few weeks ago about some of the cathartic effects of writing through a tough time, there were a few people who took that to mean that I thought that writing alone is therapy. That’s not what I believe.
Writing is not therapy. Therapy is therapy.
Writing can help organize your thoughts and expel some of your feelings, but it’s not going to bring you back above water if you’re drowning. The writing and publication process is frustrating in the very best of worlds, and while writing can help give meaning, it is a very volatile place to be placing all of your hopes.
If you feel yourself struggling, please, find the help you need.
Art: Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford
I was re-reading Bird by Bird yesterday and liked this quote:
One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, "It's not like you don't have a choice, because you do–you can either type or kill yourself."
That's how I feel about it a lot of times. If I'm not writing, I have to fight the urge to want to kill myself. Not healthy.
A good place to begin your search for help is The National Institute for Mental Health. You can find it here: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/index.shtml
You're not alone. There is no reason that you have to suffer in silence.
Shop for a therapist the way you would a house or a car. Meet with as many as you need to meet with until you find the one that you click with. That you are comfortable with. That is the one who can help you.
Visit the self-help section of the bookstore. There are many tools in the mental health toolbox. Writing is one, but there are many others. Find what works for you and use it.
That's true, you are not alone there are people out there that can help and do care.
I hope you take the opportunity to find the help your looking for …it's worth finding.
Ellen Etc says
That's kind of you to post this, Nathan.
I wonder if people who are not active in religious communities and who tend to think too much could be at greater risk. (I'm a Unitarian, so I'm not talking about belief in God, but rather about the give-and-take of a committed community.)
We're each part of a bigger circle, and our own actions affect others deeply. If you knew your suicide would put your nieces and nephews at greater risk, wouldn't you think twice, and get for yourself the care you would want THEM to get for themselves?
Zan Marie says
Yes! Help is available and from all sorts of sources.
Karen Sandler says
FWIW, there have been non-anecdotal studies that have shown writers/creative types are no more prone to mental illnesses than the general population. That said, I've certainly had my dark moments, and to some extent have channeled those into my work. I'd also like to add my voice to Nathan's and the others and say yes to therapy if those dark moments encompass your life.
Jenn Crowell says
Thank you so much for this, Nathan. As a novelist and suicide attempt survivor, I find this subject near and dear to my heart. Too often I see writers and other artists dismissing their mental health issues, or romanticizing them as some sort of mad genius.
Personally, I can't write when I'm unwell. And I absolutely agree that while writing can be cathartic, it should never take the place of medication, therapy, or whatever other intervention is needed to bring one back to mental equilibrium.
Wow! I didn't know this. I wonder if this is true of artists in general. Creative souls and mental health problems often seem to go hand in hand.
I'll add on to the advice. Therapy is good. But if you are really drowning, see a psychiatrist, as well. Medication can be life-saving. Sometimes you need a little leg up out of the hole.
February Grace says
The book Touched With Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison gets into all of this, talking about how writers, and especially poets are more prone to Bipolar disorders and risk of suicide. It broke my heart to read in it how many of my favorite poets had sought help in their time and not survived their illnesses; made me wonder what if they'd had the advances that we have today.
Treatment today isn't perfect but it can and does save lives. Once people accept that 'mental illness' is a myth and all of these illnesses are based in the brain just like epilepsy and others, then we will have one less foe to fight in this: stigma.
I speak openly on my blog and in interviews about my own struggle with BP1 because I want other writers to know they're not alone. They need to hear the message you're conveying today: that it can and does kill people if left untreated and what a tragedy that is.
Thank you, Mr. Bransford, for shining your light on this today. The more voices that speak out against the stigma, the better off we will all be.
I wish I could give ya a big ol' hug. Tears of gratitude in my eyes, you may have saved a life today.
K. C. Blake says
Writing is a lonely job for the most part. You live in a fantasy world. It's easy to get trapped in it and want to spend more time there than with real people. Then there are the rejections. You put your heart and soul into a book. It's hard to hear people tear it apart. You have to keep your self value separate from your writing and remember to take rejections with a grain of salt.
I didn't know writers were more likely to kill themselves, but it makes sense to me. Don't a lot of writers also have drinking problems? I used to drink in celebration every time I finished a book. Now I try to do something healthier.
Norma Beishir says
I like the solitude of it.
I've never understood what prompts a person to commit suicide. I've heard of the higher than usual percentages of alcoholics and manic-depressives in creative types as well.
Why any writer would want to put pen to paper while underwater beats me, though I suppose it saves on buying a desk.
In all seriousness, however – neat post. Writing can fix a lot of stuff but it's not there to fix a writer who is also troubled soul.
OH MY GOODNESS. That is disturbing, and something that is not often mentioned at writer's conferences, 😉 but should be.
Of course, a lot of people have the wrong MOTIVE for writing about things; vindication, pride, anger, jealousy, hatred.
People who write are perhaps not more prone to suicide, yet troubled minds often find their way to a paper and pen; it's not surprising, then, to say that people who are emotionally prone and do not 'tend' to their minds may end up insane, or, at least evidenced by suicide note norm, that people who commit suicide seem to wax poetic near the end.
Very interesting topic. Thanks!
I think a number of people struggling with mental health go into writing as a call for help, for the same reason they go into mental health professions, where they are also over represented. I once told a friend whose wife was struggling, we accept and treat any kind of disease as long as they are below the eyebrows. As a person that once struggled with a serious depression problem that turned out to be a perfectly treatable auto-immune thyroid issue, if you don't feel like living, if life seems dreadful, if there is no hope, SEE a DOCTOR. Stop trying to lift yourself by the bootstraps. Depression is not normal. I mean you, Jaimie!
Kristin Laughtin says
Very important post.
Writers tend to be introspective people. Sometimes this means that writing can help a writer work through an issue, and that will be enough. But it also means that it can trap writers inside of their issues, allowing them to dwell and explore and get stuck without any outside feedback to clarify misunderstandings, offer alternate interpretations, or help the writer through. That kind of isolation and insulation aren't going to help a person overcome mental or emotional problems. Sometimes outside help is needed and THAT IS OK.
Pip Connor says
Whilst I agree with what has been said regarding this subject and think it's amazing that so many people recognise that it is a very serious problem.
Sometimes it just isn't as easy as it sounds…
Mandi Lynn says
I use my writing exactly as you said: to organize my thoughts. I've had really bad days, but after I write (sometimes a lot) I feel so much better afterwards. I guess it's like talking to someone, but not having to worry about their opinion on things.
maine character says
For those needing a guiding hand, Elizabeth Moon has a very good essay on her site about writers and depression and what you can do about it.
I didn't realise Virginia Wolf was so beautiful.
Funny that you should post this subject now, Nathan. Going through a blue period myself. However the one bright spot is my creative life. Winter Roses is stronger than ever, and the cover for it is looking gorgeous. I've heard that artistic types find it more difficult to gain emotional balance. I tend to be either jumping out of my skin with excitement or rather more subdued, myself. Oh well, let us all be make alowances for one another fighting our way through the thorns, snakes and stings of the earthly garden we're trying to tame and keep weed-free so we can grow beauty and goodness.
Writing, like depression, is a self-centered disease that paradoxically gives us empathy with and understanding of everyone in the world.
Very important post, Nathan. A topic not everyone would be willing to wade into. Thank you.
As a mental health professional, can I say a few things about suicidal thoughts?
I hope this isn't inappropriate, I just think that some folks might be drawn to this post, because they may be struggling with these feelings.
So, occasional flashes of suicidal thoughts are normal. But any thoughts of suicide that are persistent or serious are a sign that someone is feeling overwhelmed. They feel the only way to escape the pain they are feeling is to stop feeling altogether.
Although they feel this way, it's not true. Like any other feeling, anger or sadness and other feelings, suicidal feelings are temporary and will pass. And there are other ways to feel better, to get relief from the pain. Suicide is a very sad and permanent solution to a temporary problem. (Even if it doesn't feel as though it's temporary, it is)!
People feeling like this can be lost in it, and reaching out to someone else can help them feel comforted and supported. It can help them look for ways to get relief from the pain. It can help them get past the wave of the feeling without acting on it.
A psychiatrist can give them medications that can give some relief.
And a therapist, a good one, can help get at the causes of the pain altogether and help them break free of it over time.
Writing is a great tool while you are healing, but writing, by definition, is something you do alone. Someone in this much pain needs other people to help out. They deserve to not have to do this alone, it's okay for them to ask for help, there are people who want to help.
And working through this, making it past it and healing, would be great material for a book down the road. 🙂
When I read your post weeks ago, I didn't interpret your message to say that writing can replace therapy. I can't speak for the others who commented and equated one with the other, but whenever I allude to the therapeutical benefits of writing, I am speaking very loosely without attaching any clinical nuances to it. There is often something freeing and soothing about writing what's deep inside you, and the other stuff you'd mentioned before makes sense too. There are many different levels of angst someone can experience, from the light stuff to the heavier stuff to the seriously heavy stuff, and I hope people would know when they've reached the far end of the spectrum and ask for help.
I also hope that those who had commented here about their struggles will find comfort.
Thanks for another thoughtful post, Nathan.
I never wanted to kill myself, but I just entered therapy for some pretty serious problems. This leads me to think that now is really NOT the best time to be doing NaNoWriMo. I had this idea that it might distract me or something…instead it's probably just adding to the giant pile of crap weighing down on me. However, I do enjoy writing and sometimes while I'm writing, I forget about all that. #conflicted
Some additional discussion can be found in the forum thread from a couple of weeks ago.
Beverly Diehl says
I recently lost a friend to, I would call it, self-sacrifice suicide. She blogged, she Tweeted, she selflessly helped other people, and she was partnered with a mentally unstable partner, who was emotionally abusive.
She hurt, therefore, she drank. Other people might swallow their feelings with drugs, food, sex, or other substances, but it all comes down to trying to handle everything ourselves, refusing to ask for help.
People are social creatures, meant to be interdependent. It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help, it is a sign of strength. It is a not a sign of strength to take care of everybody BUT ourselves; it is a sign of weakness and fear.
Please, if you are feeling despair or overwhelmed, ask for help. We are all worthy of being helped and being loved and taken care of.
Laura W. says
This comes down to not being able/willing to articulate your feelings of hopelessness, vocally, in words that are NOT on a page, to another person. Sometimes we turn to the page because we feel we don't have any other friends, or we're simply too embarrassed to admit we're not as together as everyone thinks we are. Many cultures have a big stigma against mental illness, whatever the cause.
However, I will say that some of these authors were aware of the mystique associated with the depressed writer, and used that to their advantage. Especially Plath.
It seems that true creativity In music composition, as well as writers, come from those who go through emotional and/or physical trauma. I think we spend so much time in our own heads it's more difficult to teach out for help. Does that make sense?
You're right. Writing is cathartic sometimes, but not it's therapy.
You always seem to hit it spot on, Nathan. And you always seem to grow and improve as a blogger, too. I hope you never underestimate how special you are!!
I never started cutting myself until I became published.
It's write or die for me. The whole life of the writer has saved me from the depths. I've lived quite the life, enough to fill the pages of 10 memoirs. When I was locked up in places the only thing I did was write. Not certain I could do anything else. I work, I get fired for writing, etc. It is not therapy, no. But it allows me to work through and understand some of the horror I've seen. And I've seen a lot.
I am in therapy. I have a diagnosis. Two of them. I really am trying to work through the issues. The writing is a distraction, a vice, a way for me to feel good about something. I don't know.
I've already tried to kill myself once. I did die. They brought me back. I kept writing like a fiend. I got better. I recovered from the illnesses I have. But the trauma is something writers use to write, the writing a tool to explore those traumas.
I'm pretty sure if you were to take writing away from me by some unforseeable force, I may die, not by suicide but certainly in spirit. Never say never, however.
Karen A. Chase says
Elizabeth Gilbert did a great talk about how to manage creativity and the history of emotional turmoil of writers. It's brilliant. A definite watch for all writers on this topic of writers and suicide.
Elizabeth Brown says
Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, a short story in 1892. I always recall this haunting story, the eerie tone of it, how horrific an idea to be locked away, told I couldn't write, that the writing was causing a mental breakdown. I had a brillant uncle, mental illness, poet, artist. He took meds, but he went on and off for years. Finally he was forced off because of his kidneys and wound up at 3 A.M. at an ATM in the Bronx. Needless to say, he was beaten almost to death and a listed as a John Doe in a New York city hospital for weeks. He sustainted multiple injuries, including head injuries and was never able to write his poetry the way he used to. He died of physical complications a year or so later. I think his spirit died and he gave up.
Keep writing, no matter what. If you are called to write, it is what you do and is so much more than a hobby. It is selfless rather than selfish. Writers absorb the world around them, the pain, the angst, the conflict and they wear it like skin; they carry the burden of tragedy just for the sake, really, of creating for others–as if the writing were a prayer for the world, a salve for healing. That's how I see it anyway. But I've always been a tad bit brooding (was born this way).
I wonder if this has something to do with the loneliness of writing. As a musician, I frequently collaborate with lots of people, especially good friends. But when I write, it's usually alone. I'm an introvert, so that doesn't really bother me, but I can see how people could become very isolated if they spend a lot of time writing. Maybe that's the true value of internet communities and writer's groups–they keep us from feeling alone all the time.
I'd have to disagree.
Writing is therapy. Publishing is hell.
Being creative and letting a story fill your heart, that's the most therapeutic thing I can think of.
Doctors off themselves with alarming frequency too.