Dr. Arnold Ludwig studied the New York Times Book Review Biographies from 1960 to 1980 and found that 18% of the poets he studied had completed suicide. According to Jamison Ludwig ‘compared individuals in the creative arts with those in other professions (such as businessmen, scientists, and public officials), he found that the artistic group showed two to three times the rate of suicide attempts’ (Jamison, 1993).
Jamison also points out that ‘biographical studies, as well as investigations conducted on living writers and artists, show a remarkable and consistent increase in rates of suicide’. She points out that ‘the artistic groups .. demonstrate up to 18 times the suicide rate’ compared to the expected rate in the general population. This is higher than found in the Ludwig study.
Jamison points out (that the following artists completed suicide: Heinrich von Kleist, Ann Sexton, George Trakl, Marina Tsvetayeva, Ernest Hemmingway, Malcolm Lowry, Virginia Wolff, Vincent von Gogh, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Nicolas de Stael, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, John Berryman, Thomas Chatterton.
Jamison also points out that the following made a ‘suicide attempt’: Charles Baudelaire, William Cowper, Edgar Alan Po, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Francis Thompson, Maxim Gorky, Hermann Hesse, Hector Berlioz, Eugene O’Neill, Mary Wollstonecraft, Robert Schumann, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
A. Alvarez stated in his book The Savage God that ‘a suicidal depression is a kind of spiritual winter, frozen, sterile, unmoving. The richer, softer, and more delectable nature becomes, the deeper that internal winter seems, and the wider and the more intolerable the abyss, which separates the inner world, from the outer. Thus suicide becomes a natural reaction to an unnatural condition. Perhaps this is why, for the depressed, Christmas is so hard to bear. In theory it is an oasis of warmth and light in an unforgiving season, like a lighted window in a storm. For those who have to stay outside, it accentuates, like spring, the disjunction between public warmth and festivity, and cold, private despair’. Lord Byron also suffered considerable suicidal thoughts. Percy Bysshe Shelley also experienced considerable suicidal thoughts. Graham Green experienced suicidal thoughts. William Styron in his book Darkness Visible wrote about his suicidal depression and stated ‘the pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come – not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. If there is mild relief, one knows that it is only temporary; more pain will follow. It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul. So the decision-making of daily life involves not, as in normal affairs, shifting from one annoying situation to another less annoying – or from discomfort to relative comfort, or from boredom to activity – but moving from pain to pain. One does not abandon, even briefly, one’s bed of nails, but is attached to it wherever one goes’. For Leo Tolstoy ‘the thought of suicide came to me as naturally then as the thought of improving life had come to me before’.
It would appear that the great artist experiences both tremendously deep and complex emotions. They have access to emotional experiences and the extremes. The complexity of their emotional life is great. All this is very helpful for their creativity but also makes them more likely for suicidal thoughts and suicidal behaviour. They are less logical and rational then non-artistic people and are governed by the logic of emotions. Of course the logic of emotions is very often not logical. This makes them more vulnerable to suicidal experiences.
K. Jamison in her book Night Falls Fast states that ‘I have a hard-earned respect for suicides ability to undermine, overwhelm, outwit, devastate, and destroy’. Jamison is an Honorary Professor of English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland has Bipolar disorder and has attempted suicide. This experience appears to be more common in persons with major artistic creativity than the general population.
Of course one has to be very careful with selected samples of geniuses with artistic ability. They are no way representative of the total population of persons with artistic creativity. Of course there is clear association between depression, suicide, and artistic creativity. What the prevalence of these might be in the total population of artists in Ireland is unknown. We can’t generalise the total population.
It is interesting that both Ann Sexton and Abbie Hoffman received Manic Depressive Disorder diagnosis and were given lithium but stopped taking the lithium and completed suicide thereafter. It is possible to reduce the suicide rate in artistic people with proper treatment of their psychiatric problems. It is likely that the vast majority of artistic people who complete suicide have psychiatric problems. Clearly an additional factor is that abuse of alcohol and drugs is not uncommon in artistic people. There is a myth that alcohol increases creativity. What alcohol does is to increase depressive feelings and not creativity. Alcohol and drug abuse is clearly also associated with depression. Indeed it appears to me that being creative is what keeps people alive. It would appear to me that suicide and depression are much more common where the artist experiences a creative block and that they are particularly vulnerable at that point. The great philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein as illustrated in the book Autism and Creativity was able to resist suicide by a continuing ability to be philosophically creative as a research philosopher. Indeed it may be that a creative block leads to depression leads to alcohol abuse leads to suicidal behaviour.
In terms of social drinking this is an entirely different matter. It is unlikely that ordinary social drinking will have a negative effect on creativity and indeed might have a positive effect. Stephen Pritzer points out that ‘many writers recognise they could not write well while they were drinking. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner said they went on the wagon when they worked’. He also points out that ‘writers who used alcohol occasionally saw it as an aid in getting started or a stimulus when they were tired’. This makes sense. Clearly excessive drinking is damaging but smaller amounts might be positive for social functioning and indeed for physical health generally. One must also remember that there is often a depressed period following a creative spurt. This has to be managed by a creative writer. Of course in addition the vast majority of artists are poorly paid and suffer a great deal of financial stress. It is a very insecure profession. It is hardly surprising therefore then that it is stressful and this stress makes people in this profession more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. Clearly there are genetic factors in relation to creativity, alcohol abuse and depression. The alcohol abuse only makes it much more likely that the artist will not be able to produce their potential. I don’t believe the story that Coldridge wrote Kublai Khan while on opium. If it is true then he could only have been taking very minor amounts. It is interesting to compare this with great mathematicians, scientists, and inventors (Fitzgerald, 2004). The stress in their life was generally much less than those with artistic creativity. In addition great scientists, inventors, etc. often find very useful places for themselves in society either in the academic world or in the industrial world and therefore do not have insecure lives from a financial point of view. They are also in general far better paid financially. Not every highly successful artist is capable as well of dealing with fame. They may feel they have to continue to produce great work which they may no longer feel able to. They may engage in self destructive paths of drinking and notoriety with suicide as an outcome. Being successful may set the bar too high for them and they may be unable to repeat it and therefore develop writers block followed by depression and alcohol abuse.
Ludwig A. M. (1992). Creative Achievement and Psychopathology: Comparison among Professions. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 46, 330 – 356.
Jamison K. (1993). Touched with fire. Free Press: New York.
Jamison K. (2000). Night falls fast. Picador.
Alvarez A. (1973). The Savage God. Random House: New York.
Styron W. (1990). Darkness Visible. Random House: New York.
Pritzer S. (1999). Encyclopaedia of Creativity. Academic Press: San Diego. Edited by M. Runco and S. Pritzer.
Fitzgerald M. (2004). Autism and Creativity. Brunner Rutledge Hove.