How Mental Illnesses Created Literary Geniuses
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How Mental Illnesses Created Literary Geniuses

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By: Elena U

March 21, 2017

What's on How Mental Illnesses Created Literary Geniuses
Avatar of Elena U

By: Elena U

March 21, 2017

For a significant number of literary authors, their mental illness has played an important role in their creative process. Although, it's not necessary to suffer from any mental disorder to become a good writer, we can't deny that the long hours some authors spent musing on stories and different ways to tell them were, in many cases, linked directly with mental illnesses such as depression and bipolarity.

In 1995, psychiatrist and professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at the University of Kentucky Arnold Ludwig published The Price of Greatness: Resolving the Creativity and Madness Controversy, where he sifted through the lives of 1,004 famous people in order to resolve the creativity and madness controversy. The sheer bulk of his study did little to dispel the rumors surrounding the image of the Mad Genius. In his text, Ludwig states that musicians are relatively "free from depression" and later on claims that they are more likely to attempt suicide. While he promised to resolve the mystery about this relationship, in the end we never come close to understanding what is the true price of greatness. 

As we look at these great authors we cannot help but think what was the price they had to pay to create their masterpieces. 

Sylvia Plath

writers with mental illnesses Plath

“Dying is an art. Like everything else, I do it exceptionally well.” (Ariel)

Death is a recurrent theme in her poems. She understood death as a "rebirth." Since her college days, Sylvia Plath suffered from depressive episodes and was even hospitalized to receive electroconvulsive therapy. Despite being treated by different doctors, her inner demons managed to seize complete control of her in the end. Her most important posthumous work is Ariel, which is also considered her best poetry collection.

Leo Tolstoy

writers with mental illnesses Tolstoy

In his non-fiction work, A Confession, Tolstoy delves into his depression and general discontentment with the world. At some point, he considered himself a moral failure for not being brave enough to commit suicide. Notwithstanding this, he lived a long life, dying of pneumonia at the age of 82. All his books constitute an important part of classic literature. His most emblematic works are Anna Karenina and War and Peace.

Virginia Woolf

writers with mental illnesses Woolf

"And again she felt alone in the presence of her old antagonist, life." (To the Lighthouse)

Since she was fifteen years old, Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder. She struggled with this illness throughout her entire life. She also suffered from terrible migraines and had visual and auditory hallucinations, which she used as an inspiration source for her writing. Despite her efforts to overcome her illness, she ended up committing suicide. Her most important novels are  The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway.

Franz Kafka
writers with mental illnesses Kafka

One of the first signs of the beginnings of understanding is the wish to die.” (The Zürau Aphorisms)
“There are times when I am convinced I am unfit for any human relationship.” (Letters to Felice)

In his works, Franz Kafka would portray himself as an antihero lost in a bureaucratic and incomprehensible world, created as an unbearable nightmare. He remained a loner all his life and suffered from migraines and insomnia, as well as anxiety and depression. The Kafkaesque nightmare that was his life met its end due to tuberculosis. His most important work is The Metamorphosis.

Ernest Hemingway

writers with mental illnesses Hemingway
 Depression, bipolarity, narcissism, and psychosis characterized Ernest Hemingway. His medicine? Alcohol. He descended from a family tree riddled with mental illnesses. Despite his literary success, he ended up following the same path of his family and in the end he committed suicide. Some of his most read works are A Moveable Feast and For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Zelda Fitzgerald

writers with mental illnesses fitzgerald

Although she lived surrounded by luxury and parties and where she rubbed elbows with the most relevant people of the twentieth century, Zelda Fitzgerald struggled with emotional disorders for years. Her personality was a blend of psychosis and the most dazzling charisma. She lived institutionalized for a decade until she died in a fire.


Art can help people overcome several disorders or traumatic experiences. Many artists haves stressed the important role that writing, playing music, performing and painting have had for them during hard times. Some examples are these 5 Artists that were Inspired by Drugs and Pain and these Illustrations That Show The Struggles Of Overcoming Eating Disorders.

Translated by Andrea Valle