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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sources: nytimes.com, biography.com, independent.co.uk, cbsnews.com, britannica.com
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