Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Suicide is painless

That great and good physician, Dr Thomas Stuttaford, has an article in Monday's Times in which he discusses depression, the risk of suicide among those who are depressed, and appropriate drug treatment.

What has this to do with us, you enquire. Well, to begin with, may I draw your attention, yet again, to the research published by Kay Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her study showed that 38% of a group of eminent British writers and artists had been treated for a mood disorder of one kind or another; of these, 75% had had antidepressants or lithium prescribed, or had been hospitalised. Of playwrights, 63% had been treated for depression. These proportions are, as you will have guessed, are many times higher than in the population at large.

Furthermore, may I draw your attention to some of the comments on this blog written by those who are bitterly aggrieved and deeply depressed at the injustice which has been done to them by those blind fools in publishing who resolutely refuse to recognise genius when it is presented to them on a plate.

Take, for instance, a recent email from one such. I asked him if I might quote him, anonymously, at some point, and he agreed. And, as I suspected, the opportunity to quote was not long in coming. Here is what he says:
I enjoy your blog; though, please, do include some homicidal musings about how you'd like to butcher some publishing types, it would cheer me up greatly. Pics of dead agents & publishers, their cheery apple polishing grins stiffened into death rictuses & frozen shrieks of terror, would also be pretty good. Hmm, yes.
Now, if my correspondent and I appear to jest somewhat, that is because this is all extremely painful for those involved. What is more, it is a laugh/cry situation, and on the whole he and I prefer the former option.

But you really would not have to go far to find some writers who are deeply depressed by their situation as frustrated novelists (or playwrights, screenwriters, et cetera). And Dr Stuttaford draws our attention to Professor Schneidman's book The Suicidal Mind, in which he highlights five groups of depressed patients who are at the greatest risk of suicide.

Of these five groups, three at least seem to me to include substantial numbers of writers. They include those who suffer from (1) frustrated desires for achievement; (2) damage to self-image, and the need to avoid shame, defeat, humiliation, or disgrace; (3) excessive anger, rage and hostility.

You don't have to read my mail to detect these features in the writing community. Just sniff the wind. And if you couple that with the entirely natural, and, in a sense, fully justified depression which results in a having your book repeatedly rejected, then you have, I suggest, a potentially health-threatening situation. One which you would do well to be aware of before you start.

None of this, by the way, is a new thought on my behalf. It was the main thrust of my 2003 book, The Truth about Writing.

However, Dr Stuttaford has a piece of practical advice. He says that modern anti-depressants in the SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) group are often attacked in the media. They are, however, a much safer drug to give to depressed patients than the older, and cheaper, tricyclic antidepressants. With the latter, apparently, it is far too easy to kill yourself with an overdose; and, in a ten-year period, nearly 4,000 people did so.

So, if you do end up in the doc's hands, make sure he gives you the right stuff.


Anonymous said...

I do not seek to be glib, and I apologise in advance if that is the case, but I found this piece strangely comforting, written as it was on the morning that I am sitting in front of my laptop wondering if the solitary writing life is all that attractive after all.

It is a dark, down day and a huge effort to cheer up. I am not ill as such (I have MS and that is too complicated to fathom on most days) but not having to leave the home to reach one's workplace can be very disheartening - and lonely.

It is just good to know you take the writer's depressive condition, large or small, seriously enough to have crafted such a reasoned and informative blog entry.

So, thank you.

JodyTresidder said...

Can I be among those who will say -again unglibly - that you are already ahead of the game - just sitting in front of your laptop, even while the skies are cruel and lowering?

One extremely kind, famous, writer I once interviewed (when I was a journalist) also had MS - which he kept a private matter - and which he found a hideous struggle on top of profound solitary blues. His first action - when he managed to face to his computer most mornings - was fastening his leg to his desk leg with a tie to prevent himself creeping away.

(I assumed he was handing me a nice piece of "colour" about the tie for my interview. On the contrary, he asked me not to use it - along with other stuff about fantasizing constantly about working in an office away from home - because he thought it would make him appear flippant about depression and ungrateful for his success.)

I often remember his tie - especially in moods when even Emily Bronte strikes me as being excessively light hearted.

pundy said...

I've lived with low-level depression, and some years much worse, most of my life. It's a paradox that the only time I'm really happy is when I'm writing, yet the thought of sitting down to write, or of being rejected by yet another agent/publisher, sends me back down into the pit.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to both Jody and Pundy for your comments. I decided to disclose MS early on because living in reality seemed preferable to me. I admire the famous author's self-effacing bravery. It is also true that I am at my happiest when writing but the daily round of children's book reviewing was too much today. Maybe the sun will shine tomorrow and I'll be back on form.

Anonymous said...

Returning to the general subject of suicide, I wonder whether anyone has read Nate Laami's 'Flaws in the Plan' - a novel made up entirely of suicide notes? It has been suggested that the aim of the book is to suggest that all writers are merely potential suicide victims, constantly trying to perfect their final note. Now there's a comforting thought.

Anonymous said...

Is it time to redefine success? I wouldn't be the first to point out that true 'success' happens in the mind of the individual. Perhaps it's time we saw self-actualisation as the ultimate success.
And true self-actualisation, of course, doesn't have monetary goals, and it doesn't care what anyone else thinks.
Imagine what wonderful, creative, original writing we would see - and happy, creatively fulfilled individuals.

Anonymous said...

This subject can take so many twists and turns. Having also suffered from the monsters in the closet myself, I've heard the arguments about many people having a predisposition to depression, for various reasons--which then leads to the question of whether such people are also then drawn into more introspective crafts like writing.

Even if the question were answered, it wouldn't make it feel any better...

Anonymous said...

Is it time to redefine success? This does seem to be the question bothering Andrey Pishka, the narrator of 'Flaws in the Plan'. He is driven to suicide by a family tradition which dictates that all Pishka's ought to top themselves in their thirties if they have not 'succeeded'. At the beginning of the book, he is sure that this applies to him. Gradually, he begins to see flaws in the plan. Through writing unsuccessful suicide notes, he succeeds in sidestepping the suicide tradition. Success and failure are intermingled. Where one ends and t'other begins, no one knows...

Anonymous said...

'Perhaps thats why the writer's life had always seemed so attractive: the refuge it offered for the socially backward, the gleaming legitimacy it conferred upon solitude..'

From 'What a Carve Up!' by Jonathan Coe (p.267)

S. Kearney said...

This is strange - I am currently reading A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, who, if you remember, took his own life, depressed about failing to get his book published. His mother eventually got it onto the bookshelves. When I mentioned on my blog that I'm reading this, I got an email from a friend asking how I'm getting along - this is a friend I hear from rarely, and is prone to these dark thoughts. Don't worry, I told her, I am writing for pleasure and fun. Getting published would be a blessing, not an absolute. Also, I've already tasted the whole thing of having my name become known (I'm a journalist), so there's no great race towards that goal. My mother can relax: she won't have to go scouting around for agents who might be interested in my book! Visit my blog at: http://shamelesswords.blogspot.com