The Creative Mind and Mental Health

Why is the public-at-large so adverse to people with mental illness?  Perhaps because of the darker side of humanity.  Some heinous crimes are committed by people who are mentally ill.  Those individuals are but a speck of dust in the overall population of people with mental illness, yet they get the most publicity due to their deeds. It is time to change the perception.

There are a host of creative and brilliant authors that suffered from mental illness and some created their best work while under the influence of the “dark.”   Following is a short burst of 7 Authors who committed (or rumoured to have committed) suicide due to depression or mental illness.

Earnest Hemmingway, perhaps the best-known author associated with suicide, sank into depression when his literary friends started to pass away, and his family suffered a series of unfortunate accidents, one leaving his son Patrick with a brain injury and mentally ill.  Hemmingway was instituted several times and endured electrotherapy. 

There is a historic debate as to whether he had committed suicide.  He was of very ill health and had extreme pain after a hip replacement.  He also suffered long-lasting effects of several exotic illnesses he contracted while he was abroad. Due to these situations, he had morphine available to him.  Some think it was self-inflicted, others an accident.  Either way, Hemingway known for his love of alcohol, smoke, and food was depressed, and yet wrote the most fantastical stories and poems.  My favorite- “The Old Man and the Sea.”  If by now you have not read that great piece of poetry, please look it up and enjoy.

At the age of 59, Virginia Woolf put rocks in her pockets and waded out into the River Ouse.  Drowning herself.  Her best-known works are “Orlando,” “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse.”  She has become more famous in death than in life, as have most brilliant writers.  She had a mental breakdown early in life due to the death of her mother, and then a few years later, her step-sister who she looked upon as a mother-like figure.    She was instituted several times for severe depression and had episodes that today would be likened to Bi-Polar I disorder.  Unfortunately, there was no medication that treated these illnesses at that time in history.  She too suffered through several electrotherapy appointments.

Sylvia Plath won a posthumous Pulitzer for her collection of poems, “The Colossus and Other Poems” and “Ariel.”  She is also well known for her semi-autobiographical book “The Bell Jar.” She is one of the United States greatest writers. It is said, she told her downstairs neighbor to call the doctor right before she put her head in the oven and turned on the gas in 1963.  She was clinically depressed most of her life and had been institutionalized, again with several treatments of electroshock therapy.

John Kennedy Toole, a man who was unable to escape the apron strings of his domineering mother, who was always pushing him into the public eye when he was, in fact, a quiet introvert. 

He is best known for his comedy “A Confederacy of Dunces,” winning him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981. His manuscript was continually rejected by publishers as an uninteresting piece of literature while he was living.  These rejections are the catalyst for his delusions of persecution and depression.  Later it would develop into paranoia (Paranoid Personality Disorder). He was sure he was being followed and that someone was going to steal his manuscript, even though he had put it in a cupboard sure it was a failure. This paranoia led to even more bizarre behavior as his mental health deteriorated.    On March 26, 1969, at the age of 32, he drove to a secluded area and ran a garden hose from his exhaust to his car window.  Killing himself by carbon monoxide poisoning.  His mother found the manuscript and had it published in 1980. (no doubt the industry had matured since the 1960’s) It sold over 1.5 million copies and was printed in 18 different languages. 

After spending a year on the road with the Hells Angels, Hunter S. Thompson wrote his best-selling book “Hells Angels.”  He was loved by many of the Hollywood elites (his best friend being Johnny Depp who paid for Thompsons unusual memorial- blowing his ashes from a cannon).  Hunter who was suffering from depression over his advanced age, medical problems and according to his suicide note, the end of the football season; shot himself in the head on February 20, 2005.

The last two authors, both coming under the same “was it suicide” scrutiny as Mr. Hemmingway, are Jack London, the innovator for a genre later to be known as science fiction, and Percy Shelly (who happens to be a personal favourite) known best for his poem “The Spirit of Solitude”.  My favourite poem by Shelly- “Love’s Philosophy”:

The fountains mingle with the river,
And the rivers with the ocean;
The winds of heaven mix forever
With a sweet emotion;
Nothing in the world is single;
All things by a law divine
In one spirit meet and mingle-
Why not I with thine?

See, the mountains kiss high heaven,
And the waves clasp one another;
No sister flower could be forgiven
If it disdained its brother;
And the sunlight clasps the earth,
And the moonbeams kiss the sea; –
What are all this sweet work worth,
If thou kiss not me.”

Mental illness is an overall name for 4 major syndromes:  Bi-Polar Disorder, Schizophrenia, Autism and Personality Disorders.  There are many spectrums to each of these major syndromes, and these syndromes overlap with each other.  Some are common amongst family members who shared emotinal trauma, while others are an unlucky parental lottery of DNA.  Mental illness is not a choice.  It is caused by an imbalance of naturally existing chemicals and hormones in the brain. Sometimes it is situational. An example of situational depression is extreme stress. Stress will cause a chemical imbalance in the brain.  When the stress is relieved, the brain will usually go back to normal function. The imbalance of brain chemistry can also be the result of head trauma.

With the recent increase in entertainment personalities committing suicide, I think it is important that the dialogue start.  I believe the best people to start this discussion are those who have been afflicted. 

Mental illness disorders run in my family. Most notably, Bi-Polar disorder. This spectrum also includes depression.  All my family members have a degree of depression.  A few of us have Bi-Polar disorder.  When people hear Bi-Polar, they immediately think of the hyper-mania which causes bizarre behaviour and depression so horrible that suicide is contemplated.  The highest of highs and the lowest of lows.  Bi-Polar II has fewer manic episodes and longer lasting depressive episodes.  Bi-Polar II episodes are not as severe as Bi-Polar I.   I have been diagnosed with Bi-Polar II. 

I feel strongly about wiping out the mental illness stigma.  My circle of support exists because I am not afraid to educate people about my situation.  I do not feel ashamed.  I do not want pity.  I do not want sympathy.  I want understanding.  Mostly, I want people to understand that mental illness is not a choice.  Do not think that if we force ourselves to smile that happiness will follow.  That certainly did not work for the late Robin Williams. 

While some people who do criminal acts may have a mental illness, not all people with mental illness do criminal acts.  Many in fact are creative geniuses, some people would argue because of their mental illness.

 In large, we are not bad people.  We are people who want to be accepted, not ignored.