Is Writing Dangerous to the Writer's Mental Health?

List of Writers Who Committed Suicide

I was recently reading a book by one of my favorite authors, C.S. Lewis, who died more than forty years ago. While reading his book A Grief Observed, and then it struck me, as how passionate this man was, and yet, how deep his despair when it set in, almost as if there was a mental illness. He was so concerned with the rawness that he originally decided to write it under a pen name. He publicly confirmed he wrote it a while later.

I can understand that type of despair, and after a while I began to think about how many writers can write about such negative emotions so well that it can take it toll on their mental health. when writing something powerful, as many writers do, this can drain them, becoming a writer is not easy. I thought about some of my other favorite authors, and began to notice a pattern. In fact you can find it on wikipedia if you begin with a few famous writers who have published anything in the last century.

Ernest Hemingway, James Hatfield, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and more recently David Foster Wallace, The list goes on, and then I wanted to search, and found something extraordinary, there was an even darker pattern: Death. I dug deeper, finding more information, and one bit that didn't seem so surprising. The list of writers who have committed suicide seemed endless, and these are more famous people. In fact this list contains more that 400 names. That is the shocking aspect to it.

For some writers such as Lewis and Huxley, they died in their sixties, at relatively young ages, although neither committed suicide. Perhaps because they didn't focus on health but still, especially for Lewis, the loss of his wife must have put incredible strain on his mental health.

This drove me to question if writing is dangerous to mental health or it is simply the catalyst that makes the writer have mental health problems?

I can see it within my won writing, the low points within my story I need to be in a "certain mood." The characters can take on their own life, and should my mood persist it can damage my own mood for the rest of the day. No, I don't have mental health problems that I know of, but I have come close to grief.

What of those who had mental health problems? How did they cope?

In one sense by writing. Writing and writing some more. Pouring their passion into writing. or drinking or drugs the darker side of writing. Some would fall prey to this darker side and with their health being fragile, there was no happily ever after.

Once Upon A Time

There were a lost generation, and from this lost generation came some of the finest writing of the Twentieth century. Yet in a cruel twist of fate, many of these writers had problems. They were passionate and could write with such power that no matter what was said, people read it. Some were killed durng the Great War, (World War I from 1914-1918) and the ones who were left often came back broken. ( See C.S. Lewis and Hemingway for their experiences in the war-- they both worte of them)

Yet for some, due to health problems and mental problems, they ended their lives, and cut short many a promising career. One could argue because of this writing is dangerous to mental health. The likelihood that people who write pour their emotions into their writing will be drained and stressed out is possible.

Sylvia Plath is also famous, and yet, these days I recall her precisely for the wrong reasons, her death, and the suicide of her son. I can't recall reading too much of her writing, and it always struck me as melancholy. At the same time when reading her work and others, I can sense the pain and mental anguish behind it.

Is it possible that people who write can not unburden themselves in the right way? Or is it possible that at the time of these authors, there wasn't the help given that there is now?

There are to many what ifs, but I believe that writing, depending on its content can be both a help and a danger to mental health. It truly depends upon the writer and what they are writing about.

Does it Have an Effect?

There is another side to this debate, and that is that while many writers do (or did) have mental illness, they did not commit suicide.  Rather they took their work and used it as a means to heal.  In this aspect then, writing had a positive effect, and was not dangerous to mental health.

C.S. :Lewis, for example died due to illness, but wrote one his most memorable books due to the death of his wife.  In this case he use the creative thing which was writing to help him deal with his pain.

In terms of a physiological aspect, of this I am uncertain, I believe that most people, when faced with some sort of mental illness, can and should use writing or other creative means as a form of therapy, however, this should not be the end all of therapy, and the key to writing is to release.  Done properly and with care, writing should have no effect on mental health. 

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Comments 23 comments

Nora 13 months ago

I knew of some writers who killed themselves, but I didn't know the list was this long. Maybe because of war?


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 5 years ago from Canada Author

kimh-- great! I;ll look into it. This was done a while back and hasn't gotten an edit. But I figure in the next few days it will!


kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago

Rebecca, sorry if it seems like I'm stalking your hub!!! That link above has some other links to articles about writing, highly sensitive people and mental health that you might be interested in! I can't wait for the edit!


kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago

“I still have pretty much the same fears I had as a kid. I’m not sure I’d want to give them up; a lot of these insecurities fuel the movies I make.” Steven Spielberg

Rebecca E.

I just happened to find this quote in an article at Psych Central on creativity, and thought I'd come back and post it here! Here's the article if interested: http://blogs.psychcentral.com/creative-mind/2011/0...


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 5 years ago from Canada Author

Kinh-- i beleive you have an excellent point. I shall consider your comments seriously. I beleive an edit will be in order and you'll be the frist to know.


kimh039 profile image

kimh039 5 years ago

Rebecca, in my graduate research classes we were often reminded that a relationship is not necessarily causal. An example was a study that showed that every August ice cream sales increased and so did homicides. There was clearly a relationship, but it was not a causal one. The ice cream didn't cause the homicides. However, when the temperature increases, ice cream sales and aggression increase. The point being that there probably is a relationship between writing and suicide, but writing doesn't cause suicide. There is a high incidence of suicide with people who have mood disorders and/or substance use disorders. It is possible that people with mood disorders and substance use disorders are attracted to writing; possibly as a way to cope and express themselves. There are a lot of people who suicide in other professions too. As far as whether or not what a person writes about can cause mental illness, it is a fact that the way we think contributes to mood and anxiety symptoms and substance use, and the most effective treatments for mood and anxiety disorders and substance use disorders are ones that alter the way a person thinks. Stephen King reportedly has severe phobias, and these phobias are thought to contribute to his success! On the other hand, Mozart was working on the requiem when he died! I like your hub and the comments, though. I just don't think the conclusion holds up under close consideration.


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 6 years ago from Canada Author

ar.colton-- am of the mindset in tha regard, i is th same these days with movie stars... we hear about it because of what they do.... excellent comment.


ar.colton profile image

ar.colton 6 years ago from Vancouver, B.C.

I don't know that writing was the catalyst for authors who found themselves in dark places. A list of 400 hundred authors who killed themselves is only a small portion of authors in the world. There are millions of people who have committed suicide, but it is the authors whose stories we are familiar with because of the nature of their profession.


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 6 years ago from Canada Author

Laurie-- yes writing can be used for both good and bad, I personally believe it is for good, but of course writing down is great for happy things as well, but we need to do this as well, write down what is going good.


Laurie 6 years ago

Heya.

I know this is probably resurrecting an old topic, but it's one I'm fairly interested in. I've struggled with mental health since childhood, and written as far back as I can remember. The thing is, though: if I didn't write, I think I would have succeeded at committing suicide a long time ago.

In itself, writing is a release; it's an act of acknowledging that we hurt, that the world around us hurts, and that bad things happen in our lives.

The opposite is also true, but it's largely our choice how we handle it. If we want to get better...it's a damn long road, especially if it's issues such as chronic depression and abuse, and recovery may never be "Full", but the severity can lessen. If we work at it.

Honestly, I think writing can actually be a source of private therapy - when things go spectacularly well, write them down, and keep them somewhere to read over. You may find yourself feeling that other you was naïve, but you'll also remember parts of that happier feeling better than you would otherwise. It works the same for sadness, and all the other agonies we face.

Anyway, sorry for the great wall of text. Interesting thoughts, though.

~Laurie


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 6 years ago from Canada Author

Neet8--- yes that is great to hear about writing and helping you. That is the best news I've heard in a while.

But yes for some it resulted in anegative thing, and that is the sad part.


Neet8 profile image

Neet8 6 years ago

I take on board your point. However, as someone who has suffered with depression in the past, I found that writing was a very positive tool in trying organise the dissary of emotions that were in my head.

It's possible that some people can focus too much on despair, which could send them into a downward spiral. However I don't believe the act of writing itself is bad for mental health, it really depends on the state of mind of the writer and how they choose to handle their emotions.


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 6 years ago from Canada Author

PeggyW-- you are so right, and you need to vent and have that opportunity. But sometimes it can become dangerous when it's no longer for your own good.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 7 years ago from Houston, Texas

Many people with problems are told to keep daily journals which is a type of therapy in itself. Getting those feelings on paper expose them and then (once identified) they can hopefully be addressed in a positive manner. So I would venture a guess that writing in and of itself is not detrimental to one's health. This is simply a lay person's opinion of course.


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 7 years ago from Canada Author

This is one of the ways people need to write to avoid mental issues, remember the good things.


Dark_mind profile image

Dark_mind 7 years ago from Space

I have faced the problem myself. I thought I would write about my negativity and get rid of it, but it became the opposite. I would write and get even worse. It of course, always depends of the time, of all the circumstances in our lives, but still believe that writing (if it is being done with true passion) is healing process that either lets us empty our (crowded) minds, either face us with very intimate and deep issues we carry with ourselves.


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 7 years ago from Canada Author

This is so very true, darker thoughts can lead to darker attitudes... which can lead to well, everyone understands the cycle.


Tutlens profile image

Tutlens 7 years ago

I just think that writers are more prone to introspection, and that can lead to dark thougts in a certain kind of thinker.


Rebecca E. profile image

Rebecca E. 7 years ago from Canada Author

ralwus, great comments about it.


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 7 years ago from malang-indonesia

I think writing keep our brain still working. I get a lot of benefit by writing. The great satisfaction is important point. But if we write all day and doesn't stop. It will give bad effect in our healthy, great hub. I like it.


Luciendasky profile image

Luciendasky 7 years ago from Florence, OR

very interesting... well written


ralwus 7 years ago

Well, there are writers, and there a writers. I don't consider too many hubbers as writers really. I am not one but just have fun with it. I too have noticed this and it is also common with great artists I think. Points to ponder.


dohn121 profile image

dohn121 7 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

It's difficult for me to believe that writing can actually be detrimental to a person. These authors lived life very harshly--Your Jack Londons and Ernest Hemingways of the literary world.

It's my belief that their gift was also their curse. They didn't pursue drugs and alcohol because they were writers. They were addicts and alcoholics before they became writers.

But their work will never be questioned.

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