There is no doubt that authors suffer from mental health issues. It’s complicated…
A while ago I noticed the absence of one of my author friends from social media. A quick check with others made it obvious that they were suffering from a bout of depression and needed some time off. Depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, you name it, there isn’t a mental health challenge that I haven’t encountered among my author friends. Are authors particularly prone to mental health issues? Does writing make you sick? Or do you need to be “crazy” (in the broadest sense of the word) to write in the first place? Authors and mental health, let’s have a closer look.
Mental health is a thing and it ain’t going nowhere…
Mental health is a thing in today’s society. It wasn’t when I grew up. Or at least we dealt with it differently. When my dad’s godfather’s wife jumped in front of a train after having escaped from a mental health facility, it was shushed. Nobody talked about it, yet mental health facilities were infamous. The one nearest where I grew up was in a village called Cazis. As a child, going to “Cazis” was the equivalent of being insane, crazy, a mental case. The village gave the name to the mental health hospital. It was weird when my mother was sent there for two weeks evaluation in the spring of 2013, to evaluate her Alzheimer’s. But back in the seventies and eighties, we didn’t talk about bipolar or “mano depression” as it was referred to back then. We didn’t talk about depression or any other mental disorder. Those affected were simply “crazy”, “nuts”, “insane” and that was it.
But many were never in a hospital or a mental health institution. It seems as if we have more people suffering (in general) from mental health issues today than we did back then. Is there an inflation? We did have something though, back then. Something you don’t see much anymore: originals. Every town had one (or two), “originals”, and I have a hunch they were the ones we might treat differently today.
The drawback of the increase in mental health diagnosis
I think it’s a sign of progress that we can talk (more) openly about mental health. I’m glad that it’s no longer (as stigmatizing) to say that you’re suffering from depression, any more than it should be to talk about cancer or any more “traditional” physical ailment. On the other hand, it’s a shame we still distinguish between mental and physical health. The vast majority of mental health issues are physical, due to malfunctions in the brain, not just “mental”, i.e. how we think/feel. Hormonal imbalances, genetic defects, etc. There are countless things that can go wrong and make an organ as complex as the brain tick differently. What we consider the norm is not very common.
Yet I’m not entirely convinced that every diagnosis is helpful. In one of my first psychology classes, one of my colleagues asked the professor how he would define mental health. The professor didn’t think long before he replied: “Mental health is the absence of a diagnosis.” It’s a sentence I’ve never forgotten. It’s a consolation that in one way or another, we’re all mentally sick. That we simply haven’t been diagnosed yet. On the other hand, I wonder why we need to slap a diagnosis on children just to get them help in school, why so many of society’s social welfare is based on mental disease. No diagnosis? Sorry, we can’t help you, because we don’t have a neat little box to fit you into.
I have no answers here, but I see it as one of our time’s greatest challenges to tackle. If you have a view to contribute with, please feel free to comment.
Chicken or egg question?
Mental health for authors then… When I think about that, I often wonder what comes first? Do you need to be nuts to write or does writing drive you crazy?
English author Britt Michaelsen once said something very profound: “authors need the thickest of skins and the thinnest of skins.” What did she mean by that? To write, authors need to be very thin-skinned in order to be in touch with their characters, their stories. To learn from other people about the human condition, to be empathic. But we also need the thickest of skins to handle criticism and feedback from editors to publishers and publicists, not to mention reviewers and readers.
How do you combine that, without going schizophrenic? No pun… As an empath, I know acutely just how difficult life can be when you easily pick up on other people’s emotional state. To constantly listen in on how other people feel, to be intimately in touch with your characters can be taxing, and it can be depressing. It can also be exhilarating, thrilling. But does it cause depression? Does it make you bipolar?
To read bad reviews, having to suffer from online trolling and all the other misery out there can be challenging, too. When people ask you to go and die, kill yourself when a story you poured your heart’s blood into is being trashed for no other reason than because people get away with it, it can be very depressing. When you win awards, read beautifully crafted reviews and receive fan mail, it makes your heart skip beats. But does it cause depression? Bipolarity?
No easy answers…
I don’t think I have the answer. Not sure I want one. But it’s a fact that many authors suffer from mental health issues. Whether we are overrepresented compared to the general population I can’t say. I’m not sure if it is our thin sanity membrane that enables us to write. Or is it writing and the consequences thereof that wear down our mental health immunity. Maybe a combination of both? What do you think? Whichever it is, mental health is a thing. It’s here to stay, and I’m glad that authors thematize it in their writing, helping others to have characters to identify with, and for all of us to be able to have a more open discussion about mental health, without stigma.
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