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On poetry and the Sylvia Plath effect

Updated on February 21, 2015

Could creativity be an indication of mental illness?

Sylvia Plath struggled throughout her life with depression, leading to her decision of taking her own life at only 30 years of age. Despite her mental illness, she was able to write an extensive body of work, most of them in the genre of confessional poetry.

Plath called her emotional instability "ricochets", as her mood changed abruptly. Her academic and professional achievements would lift her up and stimulate her to keep on writing and studying, but any small failure could lead her into a downward spiral. This also affected her personal relationships, since she was able to go from a lovely, cheering behavior to one of disappointment and anger towards the same person within seconds, all of those emotions experienced with intensity. Basically, her life was permeated by this sense of messy fragmentation we often read about in descriptions of bipolar individuals. In fact, her writings show many different voices, as if written by different authors.

In 2001, psychologist James C. Kaufman coined the term “Sylvia Plath effect” to refer to the probability of female poets being more susceptible to mental illness than any other class of writers. According to his researches, which analyzed two groups, one of writers and other of eminent women (like poets, fiction writers, visual artists, politicians, and actresses), the results indicated that female poets were significantly more likely to suffer from mental conditions such as bipolar disorder or severe depression. Other following studies, similarly, linked creativity to mental illness or forms of mood disorders, finding high rates of multiple mental issues among female writers.

Most of the researches made on the subject are constrained to cross-section data sets, therefore, one can’t state for sure that creativity causes mental illnesses, nor that people who are diagnosed with specific mental conditions are also creative. However, it is somehow logical to think that because those individuals often display an ability to see the world in a different, unusual way, maybe they see things that others can’t.

Madness and creativity

Another thing that can be related to creativity are the hypomanic episodes of people with moderate bipolar disorder. Since those periods are characterized by hyperactivity, intense euphoria and impulsivity, people can come up with lots of new ideas, becoming very productive.

According to Nancy Andreasen, PhD, the nervous system of those suffering with hypomania can perceive more sensory information, probably caused by a defect on cognitive processes. As a result, sensory stimulation is not properly filtered, what seems to happen unconsciously in "normal" people's brain.

As a whole, there is no definitive confirmation whether people who are mentally ill are more creative than "sane" people, but a large number of psychologists and psychiatrists support the idea that those people with mental disorders frequently end up working in creative fields because the creative activity itself, required in those jobs, helps them in a therapeutic way, decreasing the self-destructive power of their own minds - just like Anne Sexton confessed: "Poetry led me by the hand out of madness".

What we can learn is that, besides the stereotype of the creative troubled mind of the artist, there is no glamour whatsoever in suffering from a disorder that can lead a person to madness and incapacity to be in control of her own acts and decisions. In this sense, painting, drawing, writing, playing, or singing can serve as a treatment, as a form of directing the mind's energy to a productive focal point.

On women and suicide

Considering the female role in Western societies, it is also possible that women face more possibilities that will lead to experience depression, extreme anxiety, or mood disorders. In fact, according to researches, women are twice as likely as men to experience depression, and married women show higher rates in comparison to single women – even though hormone changes are to blame, social pressure might also play a huge part on the causes. Women are still expected to become good mothers and spouses, to take care of their homes, besides working.

Plath herself wrote in her journal, questioning what could happen if she got married, “would marriage sap my creative energy […] or would I achieve a fuller expression in arts as well as in the creation of children?”

Another female poet who committed suicide was Anne Sexton, a friend of Plath, who also battled against depression and mania throughout her life. In 1971, on an interview to The Paris Review, Sexton commented: "Sylvia and I would talk at length about our first suicide, in detail and in depth — between the free potato chips. Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem. Sylvia and I often talked opposites. We talked death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric lightbulb, sucking on it. She told the story of her first suicide in sweet and loving detail, and her description in The Bell Jar is just that same story”.

Sadly, Sexton's older daughter, Linda Gray Sexton, also suffers from bipolar disorder, and have tried multiple times to kill herself, a struggle she depicts in her book, "Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide", that took her ten years to write.

The list of female poets who committed suicide (before and after Plath) is not short, and scholars believe they might also have suffered from the "Sylvia Plath effect". Here are some well-known suicidal female writers:

  • Sara Teasdale (1884-1933): an American lyric poet, Teasdale had a poor health since childhood, also fighting against depression during her life. She divorced from her husband in 1929, during the Great Depression, and had to deal with financial problems. She committed suicide overdosing on sleeping pills, two years after her friend and former wooer, Vachel Lindsay, killed himself.
  • Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): an English modernist, whose life was permeated by difficult times, such as a nervous breakdown after her mother's death, when Virginia was only 13, and the sexual abuse she and her sister were subjected to by their half brothers. The writer committed suicide by walking into a river near her house with her pockets load up with rocks.
  • Dorothy Parker (1893-1967): an American poet, short story writer, and critic, she actually didn't die from suicide, despite her several attempts. She lived a troubled, unhappy childhood, but became a successful writer and her screenwritings earned her two nominations for the Academy Award. She tried to kill herself four times, two of them only in 1923, and at 70 years old, when an interviewer asked her what was she going to do next, she answered, "If I had any decency, I'd be dead. All my friends are". She died from a heart attack at 73.
  • Elise Cowen (1933-1962): an American poet and part of the Beat generation, she was a lifelong depressive. Hospitalized to get treatment for hepatitis and psychosis, she checked herself out against doctors' orders and went back to her parents' apartment, where se committed suicide jumping through the living room window and falling seven stories before hitting the ground.
  • Ana Cristina Cesar (1952-1983): a Brazilian poet and translator, whose poetry also shows a confessional, subjective tone, blurring the lines that separate fiction and autobiography. She jumped from the window of her parents' apartment, on the eighth floor, when she was 31.
  • Sarah Kane (1971-1999): an English playwright, whose plays show a poetic tone and intensity. She also suffered from severe depression, having channeled her mental issues into five published plays and one short film, inspired by expressionist theatre and Jacobean tragedy. Hospitalized after an overdose of prescription medication that failed to kill her, she hanged herself in the hospital bathroom.

Brazilian poet Ana Cristina Cesar.
Brazilian poet Ana Cristina Cesar.

Suicidal confessions?

Both Sexton’s and Plath’s confessional style of poetry, as well as many of the mentioned writers' work, can serve as example to Dr. James W. Pennebaker’s findings in a research conducted in 2001, on word choices of suicidal and non-suicidal poets. According to Pennebaker, "one of the most telling words of all is the word 'I.' People who are suicidal or depressed use 'I' at much, much higher rates, and there's also a corresponding drop in references to other people”. Besides first-person references, suicidal poets also tend to reduce their use of words related to communication, such as “listen”, “talk”, “share”… As a whole, issues regarding identity, sense of isolation, and failure to connect with other people can be revealed through pronoun usage.

Obviously, if a poet's usage of words fits the above description, this doesn't mean s/he is imminently a suicidal, but those choices can offer precious signs beforehand, enabling earlier treatment for depression.

Curiously enough, some scholars call the Confessional style of poetry "the poetry of the 'I'", or the poetry "of the personal". And besides Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath, other confessional poets like Robert Lowell and John Berryman also suffered from mental issues like depression or bipolar disorder.


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    • FreakFran profile image

      Francine Oliveira 3 years ago from Minas Gerais, Brasil

      GuitarGear, I feel the same way! Writing is how we get out of our heads and put some demons on paper...

      Thanks for the comment!!!

    • GuitarGear profile image

      Walter Holokai 3 years ago from Youngstown, Ohio

      Great job on the article. I think sometimes writing is a way of escape from hardship and trauma. At least it's been that way for me. It's a way of saying, "Hey! I'm here!". Thanks FF!

    • FreakFran profile image

      Francine Oliveira 3 years ago from Minas Gerais, Brasil

      Thank you very much for your comments, Jamie and chef-de-jour!

      And I agree, life in Plath's and Sexton's minds must have been Hell... we do have their confessions to rely on, but we'll never be able to tell how it really was... each person's head is a mystery....

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 3 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Thank you for this - creativity and emotional disturbance or heightened emotional response is something I've been interested in for a long time. In certain well known cases there does seem to be a connection between mental illness and creativity but as you say there are no hard and fast rules. Reliable data is hard to compile.

      Sylvia Plath it is true had severe challenges,intermittently, from her teenage years onward, perhaps related to unresolved issues around her father. Her relationship with Ted Hughes - his affair and subsequent child with Assia Wevill - may also have triggered specific crises for her emotionally which is why she did what she did. Tragic yes but without these extremes there perhaps would have been less creativity. In her last month poems poured from her; demanded too much from her you could argue because it was directly sourced from the well of her churned up emotions.

      Anne Sexton's poetry is more open faced and confessional compared to Sylvia Plath's work. The latter has more technical skill you could say, is a more accomplished poet (use of allegory, metaphor, form), whilst Anne Sexton's might be more performance oriented - her readings were an occasion, an event - not so textured from a language point of view.

      Enjoyed your research. Share and vote.

    • jhamann profile image

      Jamie Lee Hamann 3 years ago from Reno NV

      Well researched and informative hub. Such a pleasure to read and to contemplate. Thank you for this incredible hub. Jamie