Writers & Depression

An interesting little article in the Guardian states that writing is an occupation that quite often leads to depression:

Novelist Simon Brett, who has acknowledged his own struggles with depression, agreed with the tenor of the findings, citing writer suicides including Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton and Arthur Koestler.

“You spend long hours sitting on your own,” he said. “Writing can be wonderful therapy, but you are digging into yourself, and if you are writing fiction and creating characters, a certain amount of self-examination and self-doubt is inevitable.” Many writers are also introverted, quiet people, and find it stressful to have their work assessed publicly, Brett added, saying: “Now there are reviews on Amazon, for example, that happens even more.”

… Many writers, including Stephanie Merritt, Gwyneth Lewis and Sally Brampton have articulated their experiences of depression in personal memoirs, with novelist Marian Keyes revealing a serious bout of the illness to fans on her website earlier this year. “The medical department call it ‘a major depressive episode’, but I’ve been knocked sideways by a multitude of feelings, not just depression, but agitation, anxiety, terror, panic, grief, desperation, despair and an almost irresistible desire to be dead and it’s gone on for a very long time,” Keyes wrote. “Every day for six solid months I’ve had to try really hard to stay alive.”

I think I’ve been pretty lucky in avoiding such roads so far, but from my conversations with nearly every writer I’ve ever met, these feelings – no matter how small – are far from uncommon. The internet hasn’t helped. I dread to think how many hours I’ve lost online following pointless debates, and cringing over bad opinions. Having publishers tell authors to get a web presence can’t help everyone – it’s like lighting a fuse for those individuals whose minds just shouldn’t be exposed to flame wars.

There is something about writing and the internet that aggravates the mind: a curiousity for opinion, then a need for affirmation; which is linked to confidence, which is linked to doing the damn job in the first place. Throw in money woes and that leads to very dark nights (this is why I still have a day job). And where’s the support for all this when people will likely respond: you’re only a writer, it’s not like you’re stressed out by saving lives every day. Such a sequence of events would leave many writers feeling vulnerable and isolated, and I dare say quite a few editors are part-time therapists, too.

Not mine, of course. She just says I’m a diva and tells me to get on with it.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. On the upside depressive episodes can give you a vastly different, more rounded perspective on life and provide you with much greater empathy for your fellow human beings.

    Although living through depression is hell, my intuition is that my own experiance made me a substantially better person, and a more creative one!

  2. Depression is an awful thing to experience. It comes and goes with me, but my lifestyle has not helped me whatsoever 🙁 I have read up on these suicidal events – a bit upsetting and surely it must be a put-off to some people?

    Seeing criticisms about your own published work must be like a slap in the face, especially if it downright harsh! I’m trying to keep an open mind and will do what I can to avoid these problems… easier said than done.

    How do you cope with these feelings Mark?

  3. Read a New Scientist article (?) on creativity and mental illness. The theory was that the links that allow creative people to come up with off the wall ideas, are only one step away from mental illness.

    Should be more puppy dogs and chocolate, I say!

  4. Jo – that’s certainly an optimistic way of looking at things. Would you say the optimism was there while you were in the episode of depression? Because I get the idea that some writers just find it all too difficult to ever get out of.

    Andy – how do I cope with criticism? It depends. The Amazon reviews can be the worst, because they’re usually the most vitriolic and ill-considered (if at all considered) arguments.

    What I hate most of all about Amazon reviews is that books can be reduced to star averages in the same way as a toaster, which is unfair to the medium, and is why I would hope most blog reviewers post their reviews online to balance that out somewhat.

    But I’m not sure any author does cope that well in the first year or so of writing – you get better at it; you get more used to it being rather transient, and that people are allowed to dislike or like your work equally.

    Rowena – now scientifically proven?! Dammit.

  5. When I was studying psych umm, a few years ago the figure was around 1 in 3 people in the UK suffers with some form of depression in their life. I can’t imagine that figure has got better. When you add in that many writers work in isolation and some don’t have a day job or family to enforce the sort of routine that helps combat depression, then you add in public critisism and all the other points that have been made, frankly i’m not remotely surprised that the stats are higher in writers than the rest of the population. Perhaps editors should be issued prescription pads?

    I’d be intersted to see the research that links creativity with mental illness, it’s not a surprising result but i’d like to know how they got it. 🙂

  6. >> Would you say the optimism was there while you were in the episode of depression? Because I get the idea that some writers just find it all too difficult to ever get out of. <<

    Actually yes, though admittedly not in the very darkest hours. In those periods I could barely think. However at the time (5 years) I generally was aware of the personality changes and a dramatic shift in my world view and welcomed it even as I was suffering doubts over whether I still wanted to go on living.

    The crucial thing to remember is that depression is something that some people (including myself) simply CANNOT regulate with rational conscious thought. It doesn't matter if we can see the upsides, because at the time we still feel like shit.

    I gradually realized that my own depression was purely chemical. It affected me in the same way with absolute disregard for my circumstances; good or bad; stable or changing. For a long time I got used to blaming it on aspects of myself, which only intensified the feelings of guilt and loathing. I berated myself for feeling bad for what seemed like No Reason.

    Hmm. I feel I may have drifted slightly off-topic. Returning to the Guardian article:

    I don't have any doubts that the insecurity of self-image, social standing and fluxuating financial situtation contributes to the high rates of depression among writers.

    However I merely meant to point out that some of famous personalities that were highlighted out in the Guardian article may have been prone to depression regardless of whether they ended up becoming a writer. I suspect that for some of them it may have simply been within their nature.

  7. Thanks for sharing that, Jo, and I’m glad you’ve come out the other side. Food for thought.

    I do wonder how famous writers of the past would cope with modern publishing and the Internet. F. Scott Fitzgerald wouldn’t last a second…

  8. Writers are individuals with the ability to express their feelings, directly or otherwise. If they are depressed, they may be able to communicate the fact; even if they do not do so explicitly, it may very well be evident. Not so – or not necessarily so – binmen, fishmongers, firemen, teachers, accountants, strippers, bank managers, prostitutes, barbers, call centre workers, washing machine repairmen, bouncers, bricklayers, data entry clerks, those who work in chip shops, those who wash windows, or those who wash dishes. The perception that creates are depressives may really be a reflection of the nature of their work, and the things with which it is concerned.

    The study only defined 21 major job categories, and then reported on the top ten – almost half. That makes it likely that most of the so-called top ten are actually towards the middle in terms of risk, if such a scale even exists. There is no other mention of methodology; I have to be sceptical.

  9. Hi Matt. A valid point. I had understood that farming was the career choice most likely to lead to suicide, again possibly due to the isolation and the financial situation.

    I don’t think any of these things are particularly scientific, but the lapsed Buddhist in me does think that careers where people dwell on themselves too much (and writing does this in spades) can be a dangerous road for some.

  10. Just refining that point a little, there must be something about careers which combine solitude, financial concern, lack of support, and the desire for validation / affirmation / success, that enhance risks of negative mental effects.

    The original source indeed isn’t that clear, but I suspect this is simply a study of statistics: “Here are 10 fields (out of 21 major job categories) in which full-time workers are most likely to report an episode of major depression in a given year.” These categories are very broad, too.

  11. I have no problem with people debating what truth might or might not lie in stereotypes about the personalities of people who do certain jobs, and there’s a certain usefulness to looking seriously at any of those sorts of perceptions, but I think the Guardian’s being pretty slack in running this in the way it has. The big caveat that there appears to be no real evidence one way or the other is never deployed, which frankly is just sensationalism of a less histrionic kind. The survey, such as it is, is barely worthy of the name – let alone constituting anything like serious research.

    Must there be something about introspective careers that brings negative mental consequences? Couldn’t the same factors lead to individuals being better able to rationalise and deal with their feelings and circumstances? I think this is probably one of those instances where we can quite easily speculate on positive and negative consequences of the exact same factors. Even in poverty, we might say, writers possess the ability to occupy their minds; quite different from the quiet frustrations experienced by the perhaps poorly educated in repetitive jobs. Likewise, I don’t think we can necessarily take solitude as something forced upon writers; many may be happy in it, and the particularly gregarious may simply gravitate towards other careers anyway.

    I think there’s possibly a difference here between describing the factors that could contribute to some writers’ depression, and observing or forecasting an actual greater occurrence of such. The causes or nature of depression in writer may be different to depression in farmers, say, and may have something in common with the personalities of many writers in general, but that’s again not to say it’s any more common. We could fairly easily describe a certain set of anxieties or neuroses for the very religious, for example, and while those may be accurate characterisations to an extent, whether or not those fascinations actually represent a predisposition towards mental illness, or just reflect how others the interpret the very religious’s view of the world is a bit of an open question. The same, I think, may well be true of writers: depressive in manner is very different to depressed of mind.

  12. Absolutely fascinating discussion, and one that has got me thinking. This seems an almost double edged sword as writing is often considered an effective depression remedy, as are many of the creative arts. Indeed simply googling “depression and writing” produced a myriad of results leaning towards this thought. One such result even suggests “plenty of notable writers such as the prolific author Ernest Hemingway and the twentieth century poet Sylvia Plath staved off suicide and major depression – at least for a time – by jotting down their thoughts, feelings and ideas” (cited from http://www.scribblepad.co.uk/can-writing-help-depression-sufferers.html). Even J.K Rowling is believed to have written the Harry Potter books in defiance of depression (http://theinnerwriter.com/39/jk-rowling-on-writing-and-depression/). With the statistics from the Mental Health advising that 1 in 4 people will experience mental health in a year, the most common in Britain being depression and anxiety (http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/information/mental-health-overview/statistics/), I wonder how much can be pinpointed towards certain proffessions?

  13. Excellent point, Natalie, succinctly and well made.

  14. Hi Natalie – Ah, Hemingway… he was tortured throughout his life, but led a fairly complex one anyway. I believe, in the end, he killed himself because he felt he couldn’t do the job anymore.

    I think what this comes down to is the “how do we cope” mechanism. I’m trying to find the BBC article I read a few years back which said those who coped best from 9/11 were often those who didn’t want to share, talk, or jot down feelings, but instead those who just got on with life. A fascinating idea all the more, because I see that linked to this post – writing as a coping mechanism or something that makes it worse. And of course, different people have different responses. So pulling that back to this discussion, perhaps it’s a case of: different strokes for different folks?