Saturday, 12 February 2011

You don't have to be mad...

Some people think I'm mad to want to be a poet. (Some people just think I'm mad.) But is there a link between poetry and mental illness?

A fellow blogger recently shared this link to a BBC article with me, which seems pretty keen on the idea.

To quote:

"Depression, madness and insanity are themes which have run throughout the history of poetry...poets are 20 times more likely to end up in an asylum than the general population."

I think there may be a link. But then mental illness is much more widespread than you might imagine. According to the World Health Authority, more than 1 in 3 people will suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder at some point in their lives. That means 20 of my followers ... actually probably more since you're my followers!

A few years ago I had a period of work-related stress and basically went to pieces. I ploughed on for a while, then left my job and went off abroad for a bit and when I came back a year later, was still shaky. I managed to have a panic attack during the relaxation part of a yoga class! - ended up bawling my eyes out uncontrollably. My friend's husband - a clinical psychologist - said it was 'cathartic' and 'people would pay good money for that'. I had some anxiety therapy, read self-help books, stayed at home a lot and eventually came out of it quite recently.

During this period, I didn't try to pretend I was ok. It wasn't anything to be ashamed of, was it? Although in a way I felt it was. But the surprising thing for me was just how many people I know (and yes, a lot of them are poets!) who told me they had suffered similar episodes. People I would never have thought of as having those sort of difficulties. There's a lot of it out there - but I suppose a lot of people don't talk about it.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me that those people who perhaps examine the world more closely ('creative types') are the ones most likely to find it wanting. The more deeply you look into the world, your own life, society, the more demons you are likely to find.

"Men have called me mad but the question is not yet settled, whether madness is or is not the loftiest intelligence"
Edgar Allan Poe

There's more about the links between creativity and schizophrenia here.


  1. I appreciate very much your enlightening post about this very common challenge.

  2. Not mad, not in the least. Just human. And not "wanting" to be a poet. You are one. Yes, indeed.

  3. I empathise.

    Having had a health scare last weekend, and feeling quite down generally (the drugs emphasise my mood-swings) I've found myself writing poetry again in the last few days.

  4. Nicely put. So often, if we're not wearing a bandage, there can't be much wrong. Raining Acorns says it all.

  5. Paul - Thanks! And I'm glad you commented as you had sort of fallen off my radar. Hello again!

    Rainy - I know I AM a poet - it's the 'wanting' it I think some people find strange! 8-D

    Dave - Health scares do have a way of refocussing attention, don't they? I don't think I knew you wrote poems. Did I know that? 'Watch this space this week for something new of interest to poets...' she says, mysteriously ;-)

    Martin - Thanks. Some people think everything's in black and white. I prefer grey! ;-)

  6. I quite agree, but I think this extends to any kind of critical inquiry - scientific as well as the more "creative" type - the more one learns to think critically, the more likely one seems to feel (or at least to seem) dissatisfied with whatever one turns one's gaze upon. Ignorance truly is bliss.

  7. There was a poem on my blog on Friday. Perhaps you didn't notice it.

  8. I think it was quite brave of you to write about this. I'm glad you've managed to right yourself, I think once you've come out of the woods perhaps you feel that you can.
    I personally am still deep in the woods, but I know I will eventually find a way through.
    I find that writing things out in poetry gives me some sort of temporary peace.

  9. T Beastie - Thanks for your comment - not being scientifically trained, I hadn't thought about the similarities, but what you say does make sense.

    Dave - oops! *blushes*... I did read that one, and I found myself lichen it, but I was too busy making cheap jokes at your expense to say so at the time! Sorry. *hands Dave a hanky*

    Mounen - I originally wrote more on my old local blog two years ago. I'm sorry to hear you're deep in the woods but you're absolutely not as alone as you probably feel. One of the nice things about being a writer is that all human experience - even the bad stuff - has the potential to make us better writers as we come to understand more and more about the world and what takes people tick. 8-)

  10. You've prompted me to write about poetry now - but not until Tuesay (I've got something else planned for tomorrow).

  11. Dave - If it's something nice, you might want to leave that until Wednesday... for reasons I can't go into here... or rather I could, but I'd have to kill you... all of you.

  12. I'm writing about poetry on Tuesday, I'm not actually going to share one of my poems. How embarrasing would that be?

  13. Now, this has developed into a really interesting discussion that also demonstrates how we're, er, maybe all a little bonkers--and isn't that great! AND, as a result of this, though I didn't get there before jinksy (after all, who ever gets there before jinksy), I see there's a new poetry blog going that looks like it's bound to be pretty darn good. Looking forward to that!

  14. BB~
    Yes, I too break out in poetry and infrequent depression caused by the state of the world and my shaky (dis)belief in my own species.
    Excellent post.

  15. What a great post... bit worried you are going to kill us all now though...! (comment to Dave!)

  16. I think everyone has difficulties BB. Most people just manage to successfully hide them most of the time. I am no different.

    Am surprised at the number of poets with mental health problems as you'd have thought that writing acted as a kind of therapy in itself.
    Then again - look at the art world!

    Well done for getting through your own crisis. An evening on the sofa with a pile of DVDs and a decent box of choccies with an early night generally makes me fit to fight another day when under par and is considerably cheaper than therapy.

  17. Plato said that the poet, the madman and the genius had a lot in common as they were all possessed - by a Muse, I think, but I can't remember which one.

    Besides, anyone with sensibilities is bound to be depressed at times when you consider what humans are doing to humans in various parts of the world (not to mention what they are doing to the environment and to all the other creatures who live on this planet).

    Therapy: find a quite place, on a hill somewhere, and listen to the skylark's song (forthcoming).

  18. Dave - let's find out shall we? In cyberspace no-one can hear you blush!

    Rainy - Good spot! But shhhhhh! Not launching til tomorrow!

    Wise Woman - Thank you kindly! As long as this happens I think there is hope for our species!

    Clare & Gary - Just a figure of speech (*laughs manically*)

    Laura - It could just be that poets are more willing to talk about their 'issues'... but it's recognised that writing is a kind of therapy. I've done a (tiny) bit of work with two mental health charities - poetry performance and workshops - and got really good feedback from participants

    Sean - I am now contemplating the link between 'Muse', musing and amusing. Hmmm *strokes imaginary beard*. Oh, yes, and my first doctor's advice was to climb hills - which seemed flippant and unhelpful but turned out to be neither!. (Second doctor wanted to give me drugs - which I declined)

  19. Oh yes, I think most artists suffer to the edge and beyond with mental and emotional disorders. Pain is rich and meaningful so we write about. Then we can view it as "copy." It gives some distance to the intensity of our condition.