Depression and mental illness are issues that must be taken seriously. Also, it needs to be considered that sometimes mental illness has no rhyme or reason – anyone can fall ill with anxiety, panic, feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, loneliness, rejection and worthlessness. Life events can also trigger stronger periods of depression, such as aging, death of loved ones, emotional trauma, physical illness, unemployment and more. What’s most important is to know the risk factors and the signs.
Artists and writers are not immune from mental illness, and according to some research, creative individuals may be more likely to suffer from some mental disorders. Genetics firm deCODE claims their research shows that creative types (painters, musicians, dancers, and writers) are 25% more likely to carry a gene associated with mental illness than professions the researchers deemed as less creative. However, Harvard Psychiatry Professor Albert Rothenberg claims that there is no connection between mental illness and creativity, that we may still be romanticizing the notion of the 19th century struggling artist fighting their demons.
Regardless of whether or not there is a connection, below we have listed 10 legendary writers who tragically took their own life. If you know someone struggling with any of these emotions, or if you know anyone who has attempted suicide, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255.
10. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)
Virginia Woolf is most well-known for Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and her essay A Room of One’s Own (1929) that argued a woman must have the economic means and a room of her own in order to write. She suffered mental breakdowns after her mother’s death in 1895 and her father’s death in 1904. The death of her brother in 1906 also brought on similar episodes. Her illness was said to be periodic and recurrent. Woolf would say that she was “a sane woman who had an illness.” If diagnosed today, Woolf would likely be categorized as suffering from manic-depression or bipolar disorder according to some.
Woolf also saw a variety of doctors during her lifetime. On March 28, 1941, after her home was destroyed by the Blitz of World War II, Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and walked into the River Ouse. Her body was recovered three weeks later. Her last note to her husband ended with “Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer. I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.” She died at 59.
9. David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was listed by Time magazine as one of the best English-language novels from 1923-2005. Wallace’s unfinished novel, The Pale King, published posthumously, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He was a professor, a maximalist, as well as a non-fiction writer.
Wallace’s father shared that his son had struggled with depression for 20 years and that shortly before his death he began to suffer from side effects from prescription medication. He had been weaned off the medication under his doctor’s supervision and given electro-convulsive therapy. However, when he returned to the medication it had lost its effectiveness. On September 12, 2008, Wallace wrote a letter to his wife, arranged part of his most recent manuscript, and hung himself from the patio rafter. He was 46.
7 John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969)
John Kennedy Toole was raised in New Orleans and attended Tulane University, followed by Columbia University where he studied English. He was drafted into the army, disturbing his studies, and would write in his private office. After his discharge, he completed the manuscript for A Confederacy of Dunces. The novel was pitched to Simon & Schuster and it was selected by editor Robert Gottlieb. The novel went through several revisions, but ultimately Gottlieb was unsatisfied and passed on the project.
Toole went on to present the novel to Hodding Carter Jr., who also dismissed the work. Upset and depressed because of the failure to publish his novel, Toole ran a garden hose from the exhaust of his car to the inside of a rented cabin. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Toole was 32. Years later Toole’s mother brought the novel to Walker Percy who moved it into publication. Eleven years after Toole’s suicide A Confederacy of Dunces was published. The novel went on to win the Pulitzer Price for Fiction in 1981.
7. Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005)
Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist who became so engrossed in his stories he became his stories. He’s known for works like Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, and The Rum Diary.
Thompson was raised in poverty, and was unable to finish high school. After being arrested as a youth for stealing a man’s wallet, he avoided jail by entering the military. He began his journalism career in the military and focused on writing after his honorable discharge. He was fascinated by cultural shifts. His usage of drugs and alcohol was larger than life and he himself became a counterculture icon. Thompson shot himself at his home at the age of 67. He struggled with periods of depression as well as with pain from advancing age.
6 Anne Sexton (1928-1974)
Anne Sexton’s poetry was of the most personal kind. Her collection of poetry Live or Die, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967, covered her strained relationships with her mother and children, as well as her treatment for mental illness. Sexton suffered from post-partum depression after the birth of her first child in 1955, and after the birth of her second child she was admitted to a neuropsychiatric hospital. It was one of her doctors who encouraged her to take on poetry.
Sexton’s poetry would go on to appear in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, and Saturday Review. While taking workshops and attending writer’s conferences she would go on to work with acclaimed poets such as Sylvia Plath. After meeting with a colleague to revise her manuscript, The Awful Rowing Toward God, she put on her mother’s fur coat and drank a glass of vodka before locking herself in her garage. Sexton died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She was 46.
5 Seneca the Younger (4BC – AD 65)
Lucius Annaeus Seneca was a Roman philosopher and dramatist, as well as an advisor to the emperor Nero. He was one of the leading intellectual figures during his life in Rome. His works include philosophical essays, letters dealing with issues of morality, and satire. He’s also been thought of as the inspiration for the development of the Revenge Tragedy, influencing works such as Agamemnon, Medea and Octavia.
Seneca, as a character, also appears in works written by Dante, Chaucer and others. After Seneca’s retirement, he was accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate Nero. Historians believe that Seneca was not truly involved in this plan. However, Nero took the accusation seriously and ordered that Seneca kill himself. The tradition was that Seneca would sever his own veins, which he did, but the blood loss was slow and the pain from the wounds was excruciating. He was counseled to lay in a warm bath that would ease the pain and quicken the blood flow until he died.
4 Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)
Sylvia Plath was first published right after high school in the Christian Science Monitor. In 1950, she began Smith College where she excelled academically while struggling with depression. She attempted suicide in 1953, but went on to graduate summa cum laude in 1955. After graduation she received a Fulbright Scholarship.
Plath's first collection, Colossus and Other Poems, was published in England in 1960 where she moved with her husband, poet Ted Hughes. Her children were born in 1960 and 1962. After the birth of her second child, her husband left her for another woman. After the separation, Plath continued to work on Ariel, one of her most famous books of poems. The Bell Jar, her only novel - a semi-biographical work that highlights her experiences with depression, was published under a pseudonym shortly before her death.
On February 11th 1963, Plath’s nurse arrived at the home Plath lived at with her children. The nurse found Plath had sealed herself in the kitchen and placed wet towels and cloths along the doors to where the children were asleep, as a means to protect them. Plath was found dead in the kitchen with her head in the oven. She was 30.
3 Yukio Mishima (1925-1970)
Considered one of the most important Japanese authors of our time, Mishima was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times. His greatest work is considered The Sea of Fertility, a four-volume epic on Japanese life in the 20th century. Mishima was also known for his extreme political beliefs in which he preferred pre-World War II Japan and disapproved of Western values.
After his final work was delivered to his publisher he went to the general’s office with several of his followers where he attempted to size control. From the balcony he gave a speech to over 1,000 servicemen where he urged them to take up arms, which had been recently forbidden in Japan. The soldiers failed to take action, and so Mishima committed seppuku, ritual suicide with a sword where he disemboweled himself.
2 Sarah Kane (1971-1999)
Sarah Kane was a provocative English playwright. Her plays dealt with ideas of love, sexuality, torture, mental illness and death. Her body of work includes a short film, several articles, and her plays – Blasted, Skin, Phaedra’s Love, Cleansed, Crave, and her final work 4:48 Psychosis.
Kane was a young playwright in London when she shocked theatergoers and critics with her first play Blasted that portrayed rape, mutilation and cannibalism. Some described the play as filth while others praised her brilliance and proclaimed a new talent had been discovered. In spite of her growing success, Kane suffered from depression and received treatment as both an in-patient and out-patient.
During one suicide attempt she had taken over 200 pills but a friend contacted an ambulance and saved her life. This angered Kane who threatened she would try to kill herself again. While in her last in-patient treatment she slipped out of her room, unseen by nurses, and hung herself in the bathroom with a shoelace.
1 Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Ernest Hemingway is as legendary for his adventurous lifestyle as he is for his award-winning novels, short stories and journalism. Some of his famous works include The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway served in World War I, spent time in Europe, Chicago, Toronto, Key West and Cuba. Hemingway’s prose was clean and simplistic, but powerful.
In 1960, Hemingway’s wife Mary was concerned because of Hemingway’s growing silence, paranoia, and refusal to leave his home. In April 1961, Mary took him to the Mayo Clinic for treatment where he was checked in anonymously. It was during that initial stay that it’s believed Hemingway received as many as 15 electroconvulsive therapy sessions. Hemingway was also prescribed a combination of drugs to treat depression. In January of that year, Hemingway shot himself with a double-barreled shotgun.
The death was initially ruled an accident, but was reclassified as suicide. Hemingway’s father, sister and brother committed suicide and their deaths were believed caused by hemochromatosis, a genetic condition that deteriorates mental and physical health. In 1991, Hemingway’s medical records were released to the public and it was revealed that he too suffered from hemochromatosis.