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Writers and depression

24 January 2011

An interesting study published recently in the US suggests that writers are at greater risk of depression than most other occupations. The study puts artists and writers among the most vulnerable of professionals, alongside other "at risk" jobs including care workers, teachers, social workers, maintenance staff and salespeople. Irregular pay and isolation contribute to the tendency for writers to succumb to depression, says the site, with nearly 7% of male artists and writers likely to suffer a major episode of the illness.

It isn't hard to believe that these figures are accurate. Writers are highly isolated by the very nature of what they do, and like all artists they are subject to all kinds of insecurities because they create material for public consumption. Being publicly judged through sales and reviews, or more privately judged when trying to find an agent or publisher, is very testing.

Some well-known writers of the past - Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and Arthur Koestler - have been subject to depression and this also affects some contemporary writers.

Novelist Simon Brett said: "You spend long hours sitting on your own. Writing can be wonderful therapy, but you are digging into yourself, and if you are writing fiction and creating characters, a certain amount of self-examination and self-doubt is inevitable. Many writers are also introverted, quiet people, and find it stressful to have their work assessed publicly. Now there are reviews on Amazon, for example, that happens even more."

Writers are hit hard by the current economic woes. "It has always been an insecure profession, and now advances are spiralling downwards and a lot of midlist authors have been dropped by their publishers. It's even worse for unpublished writers, most of whom experience repeated rejections in their quest for first and agent and then a publisher."

Benedicte Page, writing in the Guardian, pointed out that some writers do seem to find some positive elements. The poet Gwyneth Lewis, former National Poet of Wales, who explored the subject in her book Sunbathing In The Rain , said that her research while a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard had suggested different findings.

"I'd argue the opposite, that given that writers do spend a lot of time on their own, and that the worldly rewards for poetry are minuscule, and given that most of the time you don't know whether what you are doing is any good, it's amazing that writers don't suffer more." In some ways, the art itself helps you through the minefield. "There is something in the principles of art that is not depressive, that's so joyful," Lewis said. And she added that the idea that you have to suffer to produce art is nonsense: "You have to be well. If you're properly clinically depressed, you can't think about rhyme."