Women Writers and their Mental Health

17th May 2013

Women Writers and their Mental Health
Women writers talking about their mental health is a convoluted and prickly subject: does mental illness give a writer a touch of glamour or does it risk pigeon-holing them and restricting their creative output?

In 1913, Virginia Woolf spent her final period of institutionalisation at a private nursing home for ‘women of a nervous disposition’, in Twickenham, south-west London. Her suicide in 1941 is well-documented, and she is arguably as well-known as a depressive who killed herself as she is a writer.

During her lifetime though, she largely managed to avoid the stigma of mental illness by having a loving husband who cared for her, no Internet, and by being middle-class and female.

Unsurprisingly, the term coined for this phenomenon is the Sylvia Plath Effect...It sounds flippant, but Woolf’s status and gender meant she could be diagnosed as ‘neurasthenic’ rather than ‘mad’, and so she was never committed to an asylum.

Woolf’s literary output wasn’t badly affected by her illness and, though she wrote her life into her work, it’s only posthumously that her mental health has been of massive interest to the public.

Back then it was totally understandable that she’d want to keep her mental illness quiet as she was living in a time when there was little public understanding of mental health.

‘Experts’ saw depression as a female-only complaint, and psychiatrists could prescribe teeth-pulling as a treatment.

That isn’t the case now, though. Over the last few years leading women writers including J.K. Rowling, Marian Keyes, Patricia Cornwell and Jeanette Winterson have admitted in the national media to a range of mental health problems, from bouts of depression to bipolar disorder to suicide attempts.

Why open yourself up like that? Is it as simple as mental illness becoming less of an issue, and no longer something that can screw up your career? You’d certainly think, 25 years after Prozac came on the market and with a lot more understanding of mental illness, it would no longer be something to hide.

Beth Murphy, Head of Information at the mental health charity Mind, says it isn’t that easy though;

“In our last Time To Change survey we found that only 37% of females would be comfortable talking to their line manager if they were diagnosed with a mental illness, so that’s 63% who wouldn’t. From what we hear, it’s still very difficult for people to be open.”

And this is despite the fact that being depressed has become almost fashionable in some circles – a (presumably) unintended consequence of research suggesting that you’re more likely to experience mental illness if you’re a creative type, and female poets are most likely to suffer.

Unsurprisingly, the term coined for this phenomenon is the Sylvia Plath Effect, and there are a number of unhelpful posts online inferring that creativity is helped along by a solid dose of mental ill-health.

Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1994 memoir Prozac Nation opened up a lot of important debate, but it also suggested to the public that mental illness was a) the preserve of teenage girls, and b) something to be hankered after because it could make you famous.

Wurtzel still writes, and has undoubtedly made a career out of her mental illness, but anyone who’s read Prozac Nation, or J.K. Rowling’s moving account of her struggles with suicidal thoughts, or Marian Keyes’s newsletter, would be idiotic to believe mental illness is anything to be desired, which is why the suggestion that it’s just a ‘trend’ is particularly vile and insulting.

A more reasonable explanation might be that, as Beth Murphy suggests, people are more willing to disclose now because there is more information about where they can go for help.

This also exemplifies the point that stigma is still penetrative, so back to the original question we go: Why would a successful female writer open herself up, potentially, to this kind of vitriolic misunderstanding?

In Rowling’s case, it’s because she knows there is stigma, and she feels she’s in a position to help challenge it. She says she has ‘never’ felt ashamed of her depression, which is a nice thing for non-famous people to hear from one of the richest, most successful women in the world.

Winterson has taken her responsibility further: “My aim in writing is never just to give pleasure. Art isn’t a luxury product. It’s always about trying to change people’s lives. Over the years I’ve had five letters from people saying that [Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit] stopped them killing themselves.”

It’s possibly easy to scoff, and say that these women are all rich and successful so they don’t have to worry about hiding themselves any more, but they still have audiences who could react badly. And you know what, they have mental health issues, and people with mental health issues can’t always cope brilliantly with negative responses that others might shrug off.

In any case, Beth Murphy believes that public figures talking about their mental health problems is important, because it allows people who aren’t famous to see that having a mental illness is okay. She also believes that it remains an “incredibly brave” thing to do.

So, 72 years after Virginia Woolf felt her only way out was to drown herself, leading women writers are going public with their mental illnesses, and this is A Good Thing. Catharsis for them?

Maybe talking about mental illness is beneficial, hence the explosion in talking therapies. The more people talk about it the more normal it becomes, and we can move on from writing stuff like this that makes mental health a massive talking point.


  • Jess says:

    If you are interested in how literature has tackled the theme of mental ill health and you live in Leeds or York you may be interested in the Sharing Stories initiative, including its ‘book of the month’, which is June is Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allen http://www.leedspft.nhs.uk/campaigns

  • Dan Holloway says:

    A subject that needs talking about as often as possible. And yes, that idea that creativity and mental illness are somehow linked is one that needs squashing every time it rears its head. My only surprise at the article is that to me 37% seems quite high. I am very lucky where I work that I have a supportive line manager who has been immensely supportive, though even then I didn’t choose to talk to her but had it brought on me by a breakdown, and my experience from the last time I talked to a line manager (she said “you’re not going to stab me, are you?” which may have been a joke but was a pretty tasteless one given that I was sitting there utterly terrified) has made me very wary. Again, this is something we need to keep on campaigning about, creating workplaces that are environments of support and not fear and insecurity.

    Can I also wholeheartedly recommend Rebecca Wait’s wonderful novel The View on the Way Down

  • m. koenig says:

    This was an informative article. My father was a creative musician and a depressive…I am a creative writer and a depressive. I tend to believe mental illness runs in families. Today that doesn’t have to be a death sentence. No matter how far we have come in treating mental illness..
    The stigma remains and it is up to us to break this outdated idea once and for all.