Writing not just about, but WITH mental health issues

This is Mental Health Awareness Week as the media have been screaming out at us. How do you feel about the fact that mental health has been, up until recently, swept under social carpets and is now just emerging from the dustpans as an “OK” subject to talk about?

writers and mental health

As a writer, when you start scratching the surface of your own mental health you are likely to find a few worrying things lurking there.

Not for me to slag off science, PC commentators, Royal Family members and all the others who are hopping up on to the mental health bandwagons. No, bitchy though I am, these people are doing a great job in de-horrifying our views of mental health problems.

Writers and other creatives are almost expected to be a “bit loopy”

We all know, or have heard about, the fact that many people in literature, satire, comedy, fiction, poetry, pictorial art, sculpture, music, and Heaven only knows how many other areas just so happen to have or have had mental health issues.

In the arts world, of course, people with mental health issues usually are known as eccentrics, and have been for many years.

HTWB cats

Yes, I am a masochistic crazy cat lady.

You probably remember clichés like “the mad professor,” the nutty drummer,” and even “the crazy cat lady” although that doesn’t necessarily suggest literary prowess: only a taste for masochism…

Do we writers knowingly brush our mental health issues under the rug?

As a writer, when you start scratching the surface of your own mental health, you are likely to find a few worrying things lurking there. They may only be temporary problems like a depressing event when people in the past would say “oh, pull your socks up and don’t be silly.” Would they have said the same to someone who had just sprained their ankle?

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UPDATE: Kay Castaneda, author of Emmie of Indianapolis and who commented below, has written a startling and heart-breaking article about people’s ignorance of what mental health is all about. Do read it; it’s a sad reflection on the need to further raise public knowledge and acceptance of mental illness, personality disorders and much more. 
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It has taken us a very long time to realise that just as a disability isn’t always obvious, pain isn’t either. It’s just that a broken bone is far easier to a) find, b) diagnose and c) treat.

Is writing a profession that invites mental health problems?

Every writer you talk to will have their own particular hole they crawl into when inspired to write, whether it’s halfway up a tree in the forest, locked inside the garden shed, or conversely in the middle of a busy coffee house (think J K Rowling when she was writing the Harry Potter books.)

Suzes desk

My desk. Dogs are on their beds.

The one factor those three options have in common is that they all force you into mental isolation either through silence, or the need to zone out from ambient noise. And are long periods of mental isolation healthy? Probably not.

In my case I feel like a bit of a hermit, preferring the company of my dogs and my desktop, writing far into the night instead of socialising at the pub bitching about Brexit and Donald Trump and the tragic loss of milk deliveries to your doorstep. I wonder what a psychotherapist would think of that?

Famous writers have had serious issues, too

“You don’t have to have a mental disorder to be a great author,” writes Virgina Johnson in the Central Rappahannock Regional Library blog from Fredericksburg, VA, “but those lightning leaps of imagination and hours spent constructing fascinating stories, multi-layered in meaning and unique in style, can sometimes be linked to mental illness.”

“Many of the 20th century’s great writers, including Virginia WoolfErnest HemingwayF. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda Fitzgerald, and William Styron, suffered from mental illness. During May, which is Mental Health Month, take a moment to examine the difficult lives of these writers.”

Read Virginia’s full article here.

Not just writers: mental ill health and most creativity are frighteningly close friends

When we really start peeling the onion we find more and more examples of mental health problems in famous creative people, actors, comedians, musicians. You begin to wonder if taking up writing or comedy shouldn’t be obliged to come with a government health warning.

Many creative types simply whittle their brains away with alcohol and/or drugs. But a horrible irony is the way so many comedians – some of the most famous in the world – have suffered so badly from mental health problems that some even have taken their own lives. Think Robin WilliamsTony HancockBrody Stevens.

That doesn’t even begin to touch the number of professional comics who, in real life, are not funny at all.  “The smiling face of depression” as my former family doctor would have said.

Punchline: in this Mental Health Awareness Week 2019, we have the opportunity not only to increase awareness of mental health problems but also to increase acceptance of them. For me, the latter is the more important. What do you think?

Please share your views!

Comments

comments

Thoughts

  1. Thanks Suzan! I agree with everything you write in this article. I have a blog where I post my creative writing and just recently decided to write about my mental illness. I’ve published a YA novel and have a story in a mystery anthology coming out soon. I wrote a post about an experience I had when my husband and I went on a vacation. It was about my reaction to a woman’s remark about artists and mental illness. Society should be more accepting of mental health problems.

  2. HI Stephen and thank you for your kind words! Glad you found the article helpful. Sz

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