Writers have it tough. It’s not just the endless rejection letters and the slim chances of making a living from their craft—it’s also their mental health.

The idea that creative writing is linked to mental abnormality is ancient: Socrates argues in Phaedrus that poetry is a form of divine madness. The literary world has lost many of its greats to suicide: Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace, to name a few. But are writers actually more prone to mental illness—or is this a myth fueled by memorable anecdotes?

In the largest study on this question (including almost 1.2 million Swedish patients), researchers found writers to have more than double the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder compared to a control group of accountants. Writers also faced a greater risk of depression, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.

The “tortured genius” stereotype isn’t limited to writers, so the researchers looked at individuals in other “creative professions” (including artists and scientists). But artists in general were only at greater risk for bipolar disorder—and even this risk was much greater for writers specifically.

Some speculate that writers become depressed or turn to drugs because of the stresses of the writing life—constant rejection and unpredictable, usually low income.
But the Swedish study shows that other artists, who endure similar hardships, don’t suffer the same behavioral health problems.

Psychiatric diagnosis is fraught—National Institute of Mental Health Director Tom Insel, M.D., slammed the prevailing diagnostic paradigm last year for its “lack of validity”—and lack of objective, biological basis. But the Swedish researchers’ results weren’t limited to diagnostic labels: they found writers faced a 50% greater risk of suicide— and the increased risk applied even to authors who had no diagnosis at all.

The Swedish researchers offer one potential explanation for their results: social drift. Individuals with severe mental illness often have a hard time holding a steady job. Some may turn to self-employment—including in artistic fields. But it’s not clear why this should apply more to writers than to other artists.

Another possible explanation can be drawn from the theory of depressive realism, which essentially claims that depressed people are depressed because they see the world as it is—depressing. They are “sadder but wiser.” Writers have to be careful observers of human nature and society. Painters and composers can take inspiration from suffering; but writers have to: drama comes from misery—comedy, perhaps even more so. Depressive realists may often be drawn to writing for this reason.

Finally, those who undergo traumatic experiences that often lead to mental health and substance abuse problems may—consciously or not—turn to writing for its therapeutic value. Research shows that by writing about their emotional experiences, people can improve their mental health and even reduce the symptoms of asthma and arthritis. Novelist and Vietnam veteran John Mulligan credits his writing with his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As he put it, “writing made me feel like I had a soul.”


28 Responses

    • Dimitris Mav

      “..But the Swedish researchers’ results weren’t limited to diagnostic labels: they found writers faced a 50% greater risk of suicide—..”
      They are Swedes who made the research, what would you expect as a finding other than suicidal tendencies and stuff like that… 🙂

    • Joe Abdo

      Actors go through the same “constant rejection and unpredictable, usually low income”. I think they are subject to the same problems as are alleged for writers.

  1. Cyfarwydd

    I’m having trouble believing those are the researchers’ explanations of the bipolar/depressed writer phenomenon. Money trouble? Really? When you’re manic you literally can’t stop writing, and your brain is firing is all different directions, so because of this randomness you get pretty creative stuff, and a lot of it (hypergraphia, look it up), and then you look at yourself writing like crazy like that, and you go,

    well I guess I am called to be a writer if it’s pouring out of me like the river ganges

    So it’s an easy illusion to fall for, and once people without bipolar have seen and admired your crazy hypergraphia, hard to let go of.

    • SDHunt

      I did look it up, and you are confusing hypergraphia with hypomania, the latter of which does not necessarily express itself in writing. Hypergraphia is a specific (and low frequency) symptom of temporal lobe epilepsy, not bipolar/depression. If you’re going to call out an article out for lack of evidence (which I’m not disputing), please make sure you check your facts as well.

      • Cyfarwydd

        I appreciate you calling me out on this. Hypergraphia is indeed a symptom of temporal lobe epilepsy, and it is also seen in the manic phase of bipolar disorder, as well as certain schizophrenic patients (both brought up as writerly diseases here.) Here is a good study that examines the question. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2571074/

        It just seems incomplete to look at this phenomenon as mental disease being caused by the writing lifestyle when there is evidence of certain kinds of creativity stemming from aberrant brain activity.

        I experience hypergraphia, so that post was coming from personal experience, and have no epilepsy but do suffer from bipolar. Something to think about! :]

    • Joseph Jaynes Rositano

      Thanks for the comment, Cyfarwydd. I did not find the study authors’ “social drift” explanation plausible. I don’t think many people say, hey, I can’t find a regular job, so I’ll take up writing. However, Chekhov initially wrote short stories to make money when his medical practice was not very profitable, so it has happened.

    • falcon 365

      Although I did have lobal damage twice, once falling from a moving truck, i cannot remember a time when I was not writing something. Whether it was journals, re=writing sermons after church, speeches for graduation, short stories, I have been doing this since I was a child before anything occurred.
      Writing is a lot like other professions; you will see long lines of women in a family as nurses, or all of them teachers, accounting type work, etc. Three of my children are good at it; one hates to write but she is good when she puts her hand to it; another writes a lot as she researches; those two both won veterans awards just under the state finals, a third one talks about writing a book, which he may be working on though we do not hear about it. I love the idea of seeing them all do better than myself and hope at least one takes that up as a serious endeavor.
      So, I don’t think that you are pointing to writing itself as a sickness but like you, it sure feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it? Glad your keeping at it.

      • falcon 365

        I kept writing even when I had no readers; couldn’t stop. So i was really lucky there for awhile the Universe decided to provide me with something to write about when i ran out of things and umph, on my travels.

  2. SDHunt

    I too was partly speaking from personal experience, because I experienced hypomania at least once a year due to bipolarism. It’s taken the form of an uncontrollable urge to write, but also in non-creative ways, like being unable to stop playing computer games. I write even during non-mania periods and work as an editor, so I’d doubted your initial comment. I’d never heard of hypographia before. Thanks for that link, Cyfarwydd. It’s a fascinating read.

    • Cyfarwydd Yesh

      Sorry to hear that you’re experiencing bipolarity; the phenomenon is largely misunderstood, and because of that, being a bipolar patient can feel alienating and lonely. If you’re further interested in creative neurology, Alice Flaherty actually wrote the Midnight Disease, where she talks about neurological phenomena in people like Dostoyevsky, Proust, etc. For more info on bipolar specifically, Joel Paris’s “The Bipolar Spectrum: Diagnosis or Fad?” is a quick, well-researched text, too. Glad somebody else is interested in this stuff.

  3. Melanie

    So I see theories for increased rates of depression and anxiety among writers, but unless I’m missing it this article doesn’t report on proposed explanations for the high rates of schizophrenia among writers that it refers to in the third paragraph. Any research or theories on that?

  4. WeaverGrace

    As one who has had bipolar as long as I can remember, and who has a background in business management, and income tax law, I am now titling myself as a full-time writer. I have written all my life, beginning with recording my epic night dreams, and continuing with business reports, manuals, and correspondence.

    The idea that you mentioned resonates with me: of writing as therapy for recovering from traumatic experiences. However, my writing also expands on the skill that I began developing in childhood: of recording my dreams, and stories that come to me when I’m in a dreamlike state. So, do I write because I survived traumatic experiences, or do I feel traumatized because I didn’t write enough?

    I have been seeking a way to work full-time. As you stated, writing seems like a perfect solution. Read my blog for more about my perspective on life, especially my post Bipolar Snowballs at http://WeaverGrace.com. This month I am sharing suggestions for people who write about mental illness.

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