Are Writers More Prone to Depression?
A common, if somewhat poetic worldview, would have us believe that writers are depressed, alcoholic, drug abusing people slowly dying as they chase their muse. The image of suffering writer is everywhere.
Writers like Ernest Hemingway, pictured above, Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson epitomize how many people view writers in general, men with periods of brilliance and periods of depression and alcoholism. But how true is that?
Stereotypes aside I’ve heard many writers talking about depression in blogs and on panels at conventions. Is depression more common among writers and other artists? Or is that a myth?
For the record, yes, I have been through the ringer with depression on more than one occasion. But this post isn’t about my personal struggle or story. I might share some of that at some future time.
I think there are a couple of legitimate reasons why writers might be more prone to depression than non-creative types. But overall I think it’s a myth, and I think there is one really important reason that myth persists.
First let’s start with why writers might suffer depression.
The open eye gathers more dust
I read this in the book, The Heart of Yogi. It was meant to be about yoga practitioners and other spiritual types. But it applies equally to writers regardless of their spiritual bent.
Writers have open eyes. We see this world in ways that others don’t. For some writers this is really obvious. We read their works and we know they are spending a lot of time delving into the dark corners of the human mind. The horror writer that brings nightmares to life. The psychological thrillers that puts inside the mind of a serial killer.
Those writers have seen some shit, even if it was imaginary shit in their head.
But what about those escapist writers that claim their works hold nothing of reality? Science fiction and fantasy authors who build new worlds to escape this one. Romance writers who are committed to the happy ever after no matter what.
I would argue they see some shit too. It’s inescapable to the process.
How do you learn to describe people? By watching them. And sometimes you see some great things people watching, sometimes you see some less great things.
The other day at the grocery store I watched an middle aged woman and an elderly woman shopping together. They argued over vegetables and a whole story revealed itself, the middle aged woman put into the mother role with a mother she obviously adored, but was frustrated with. She never thought she’d be on this side of table, telling her mother that the doctor wanted her to eat her veggies. It was cute, endearing.
But an aisle over was a very different story. A man and a woman. A sharp glance, a barked word. And I couldn’t help but feel like I was seeing a battered woman. Did her makeup cover bruises? If this is was how he acted in public, what was he like at home?
Observing people is great practice for writers, but a wearying exercise in humanity. There are people just like your worse villain, walking the same streets that you do. Following the news gives us so many new story ideas, but man it can be depressing some days.
Can that lead to major depression? There is a huge gap between feeling stressed and being depressed. Everyone’s threshold for depression is a little different. For some people, maybe this could trigger a deep depression. For most writers I suspect this is a factor, but not the sole cause of any struggles they have.
Our Society Does Not Like Those Who Don’t Conform
Writers are, almost by definition, non-conformers. Creativity in any form is seen as a sign of non-conformity.
Again you can look over the history of writers and find many stellar examples of non-conformity. Many of the literary greats lived unconventional lives. They spoke out against repressive societies and told stories that at the time were unheard of.
But that, too, contains a lot of stereotypes. For every Anas Nin and Virginia Woolf there were dozen of more conventional women writing in every genre. For every adventurer of Hemingway’s fame there were dozen of writers that lived mundane, pedestrian lives.
Even so, writing is an act of rebellion. As Robert Heinlein said, “Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of, but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards.”
I doubt there is a writer alive who hasn’t had someone wonder, in a disparaging voice, when they will do something more practical with their time. And woe to those who aspire to make a living from writing.
So many people in our society have a love/hate relationship with writing and writers. Surveys show that upwards of ninety percent of the US population say they want to write a book someday. But they constantly disparage those who actually do so.
Some of it is just sour grapes, of course. Maintaining that it’s an impossible dream removes any responsibility to actually sit down and write their book.
The fact remains that our society puts pressure on anyone who is seen as breaking from cultural norms. The further you stray, the more pressure there is. Transgender and gender nonconforming individuals are murdered at a strikingly high rate in this country, and around the world. Some are shot on the street by people who don’t know them, have no reason to hate them except for their non-conformity.
The good news is that no one, to my knowledge, is killing writers. But that doesn’t mean the pressure isn’t there. It can come in the form of family members that don’t respect your writing time as important. Backhanded compliments from strangers when they discover you’ve written books.
Like the first point, I doubt the pressure on writers is severe enough to lead to depression by itself, but then again I don’t know your situation so I can’t say. Certainly many people have been forced into careers they hate because everyone told them their dream was impractical. But I am sure it’s a factor for many writers with depression.
So maybe there is something to the idea that writers are more likely to be depressed. But I think there is a much bigger factor that we haven’t talked about yet.
Writers talk about depression
Writers are storytellers first and foremost. And we dig in our own lives for stories worth telling. One of the most beloved writing quotes is “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”*
350 million people worldwide suffer from depression. In one year alone, 6.7% of the US population had a depressive episode. And it’s probably only the tip of the iceberg. There is a huge stigma against mental health throughout many of the world’s culture.
Depression is often disparaged as a sign of weakness or something that isn’t serious enough to warrant treatment. Numerous myths abound about mental health treatment and depression treatment specifically, further discouraging people from seeking treatment.
Which makes depression an enormously important and untold story. Depression is a complicated thing. There isn’t one clear cut “cause” of depression and people get depressed for a lot of reasons. Some people are born with genes that make them prone to depression. Some develop depression for physical reasons, others due to traumas or stresses they’ve face.
The symptoms are individual. Some people sink into a numb, low energy state. Some are sad, many, surprisingly, are not. Instead they experience other negative emotions like anxiety, anger, irritability or heightened stress. Some feel chronically tired while others are filled with a restless energy that doesn’t seem to accomplish much.
Another often misquoted piece of writing advice is “write what you know.” The origins of this advice was never meant to limit the writer, but to help them process their own experience. It was Thoreau in Walden who laid it out, stating he “required of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life.”
We might write about alien worlds, fantasy realms or other people’s lives, but we are all really processing our own stuff with everything we write. The only way to escape this, to separate our writing from our experience, is to first come to terms with our own issues.
For a fair percentage of writers, that experience includes depression. So we do what writers do, write it out. We talk about our struggles in our blogs and in our stories.
And that, I think, is a great thing. It’s great for the individual that you can work out so much of your depression through writing about it. But it’s great for the reader, too. People who suffer depression feel alone, unsupported.
You are not alone. In fact you are in great company. A wiki page of famous people who have suffered depression is long and contains former presidents, film makers, writers and celebrities.
If you are currently struggling with depression, the way ahead may be dark. But it’s not without hope. There are many effective treatments, many others who have battled these demons and won. Take hope.
*This quote has been attributed to multiple writers. See here for a full discussion.
Do you have depression?
Everyone is different but people with depression experience many of following symptoms:
- Anhedonia: Literally lack of joy, things that used to make you happy don’t any more.
- Persistent negative moods including; sadness, anxiety, worry, irritability, anger and/or numbness or an “empty” mood.
- Decreased energy and fatigue
- Trouble sleeping/trouble waking up, feeling tired all the time
- Difficulty concentrating and remembering things.
- Appetite or weight change, up or down
- Aches and pains without physical explanation.
- Thoughts of death and suicide.
For a more complete list, see here.
What to do?
The most important thing to do about depression is to talk about it, admit that you are struggling. That can be hard, especially in our society, but know that there are supportive people. And depression can be treated.
If you are feeling suicidal, please talk to a professional right away. The suicide lifeline prevention website can be found here. They have a 1-800 number and a lot of resources. Please go check it out before attempting to harm yourself.
The National Institute of Mental Health has many online resources for depression. However, I suggest you talk to someone in person. Many employers have employee assistance programs that offer a few free counseling sessions, enough to find out if you have depression and to learn what resources are available locally or through your health plan. Your personal physician is another resource, if you have one. Young people should check with their school and/or college. Their is almost always some sort of student counseling services. If you don’t have benefits through a job, there are community mental health centers in many communities.
The reason I suggest talking to a professional in-person is that the internet is filled with “helpful” advice on how to deal with depression. I use suspicious quotes here because while many of suggestions are great self-care tips they are not comprehensive treatment and they shame people who need a different kind of treatment.
Depression is an individual disease and it needs individualizes treatment. The fact that one friend got out of their depression on their own by doing yoga doesn’t mean its wrong for you to take medicine. Just because you take medicine doesn’t mean that counseling isn’t a better option for someone else. Do what is best for you and don’t shame others for doing the same.