Famous Writers And Artists And Mental Illness

This post is part of Celebrity Health Week at the b5media Health & Wellness Channel. For more information about Celebrity Health Week posts here at Mental Health Notes, visit Introducing Celebrity Health Week: Celebrities And Mental Illness.

In this Celebrity Health Week post, we’ll take a look at some famous writers and artists who have a mental illness – or had, in the case of the deceased. I’ve covered several music artists throughout the series, so I think I’ll keep this post to writers and artists who were painters, sculptors, etc.

Unless I find one that interests me – say, a historical musician or someone like that.

Please note that I am not an authority on anyone who may have a mental illness. For an person to be on this list, he or she or a spouse or reliable family member must have publicly discussed – verbally or otherwise – his or her mental illness, or, in the case of the deceased, professionals must have addressed it later on.

Read on!

The following writers and artists have either reportedly spoken about their mental illnesses, or professionals have talked about the possibility of mental illness after their deaths.

Art Buchwald, deceased American humorist and well known for his column in The Washington Post, reportedly had bipolar disorder.

Patricia Cornwell, author, was quoted in The Times as admitting to taking a mood stabilizer because she was “wired differently” and that even though her “diagonosis goes back and forth” she’s “pretty sure” she has it. “It” being bipolar disorder. She also mentioned that it’s “not unusual for great artistic people to have bipolar disorder.” Hmm.

Hart Crane, deceased American poet, reportedly experienced episodes of both manic euphoria and deep depression, as well as struggled with alcohol abuse.

Dorothy Day, deceased American journalist and founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, reportedly experienced depression.

Theodore Dreiser, deceased American author, reportedly dealt with clinical depression.

George Eliot, deceased British author who was really Mary Anne Evans, reportedly had clinical depression.

Jules Feiffer, New York cartoonist, novelist, and playwright, has spoken of his depression.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, deceased American author, reportedly had clinical depression.

John Gibson, Irish pianist-composers, reportedly has bipolar disorder.

Amy Heckerling, writer, director, and genius behind Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, has spoken about her struggles with eating disorders.

Ernest Hemingway, deceased American writer, reportedly suffered from either clinical depression or bipolar disorder (probably bipolar disorder, as Patricia Cornwell’s so sure it’s not unusual for great artistic people to have it), and committed suicide in 1961.

Hermann Hesse, deceased German-Swiss writer and painter who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, reportedly had clinical depression.

Jack Kerouac, deceased American writer and artist of the Beat Generation who became widely influential after his death, reportedly suffered from clinical depression and struggled with alcohol and substance abuse.

Norman Mailer, deceased American writer, reportedly dealt with clinical depression.

Kate Millett, American feminist writer and activist, discusses her bipolar disorder in The Loony-Bin Trip.

Spike Milligan, deceased British writer, reportedly had bipolar disorder.

Robert Munsch, American-born Canadian children’s writer, reportedly has obsessive-compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder.

Georgia O’Keeffe, deceased American artist, reportedly suffered from clinical depression.

Eugene O’Neill, deceased American playwright who looked a whole lot like a younger version of the actor who played Barty Crouch in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, struggled with depression and alcoholism.

Walker Percy, deceased American writer, reportedly had clinical depression.

Pablo Picasso, deceased Spanish painter and sculptor, reportedly had clinical depression.

Sylvia Plath, deceased American poet, suffered from bipolar disorder and committed suicide in 1963. (Lively Women’s Kristen King contributed Sylvia Plath: Glimpse Into The Writer’s Mind to Mental Health Notes back in November.)

Edgar Allan Poe, deceased American writer, reportedly suffered from clinical depression and alcoholism.

Jackson Pollock, deceased American painter, reportedly dealt with clinical depression and substance abuse.

Cole Porter, deceased American lyricist and composer, reportedly had clinical depression, paranoid delusions, OCD, and alcoholism.

Mark Rothko, Latvian-born Jewish American painter, reportedly suffered from clinical depression.

Charles Schulz, deceased American cartoonist and mastermind behind Peanuts, reportedly suffered from clinical depression.

Anne Sexton, deceased American poet and writer, reportedly had clinical depression and committed suicide in 1974.

Neil Simon, American playwright and screenwriter, reportedly has clinical depression.

Paul Simon, Grammy-winning musician and composer and the man I can thank for the chills every time I hear “Hello darkness, my old friend…,” reportedly has clinical depression.

Joey Slinger, Canadian journalist and author, reportedly has clinical depression.

William Styron, deceased American novelist and essayist, reportedly had clinical depression.

Tracy Thompson, American journalist, talks about her depression and aims to bust stigma with her book The Beast: A Journey Through Depression.

Leo Tolstoy, deceased Russian writer, reportedly had clinical depression as well as struggled with alcohol and substance abuse.

Vincent van Gogh, deceased Dutch Post-Impressionist artist, reportedly had both clinical depression and bipolar disorder.

Kurt Vonnegut, deceased American author, reportedly had clinical depression.

Tennessee Williams, deceased American playwright, reportedly suffered from depression and alcohol abuse.

Note that this is not a comprehensive list of famous writers and artists who have or had mental illnesses; it’s merely a list of the ones for whom I’ve found information. As a matter of fact, you can check out the Home Based Family Services Network article on Famous People with Mental Illness, which undoubtedly includes writers and artists I haven’t mentioned here.

And, if you know of any others – and can provide credible sources – feel free to leave them in the comments.

In the meantime, stay tuned for information on celebrities and suicide as well as letters from me to a few famous folks!


Image: Newscom

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    • http://incommunion.org/forest-flier/ Jim Forest

      I knew Dorothy during the last twenty years of her life and have written a biography of her (Love is the Measure). In her recently published diaries (The Duty of Delight, a book I highly recommend) she refers repeatedly to feeling “blue” (not at all surprising for anyone living the community life she did), but I would not describe her as a person struggling with depression. What gave you the idea she was suffering from “clinical depression”?

    • http://mentalhealthnotes.com Alicia Sparks, NAMI Affiliation Leader

      @ Jim – Thanks for chiming in!

      A few Web sites I viewed listed Dorothy Day as a writer who dealt with depression. “Clinical depression” wasn’t my diagnosis (as I am not a doctor, ha), but was the phrase used on one of those Web sites. Because “clinical depression” is generally used to describe the more serious bouts of depression, and because I read an article in which the author said he too knew Dorothy and that she’d told him “twice in her life” that she’d overcome “serious bouts of depression” (“overcome” being the word that kept me from using “struggling”), I figured it was worth it to leave the “clinical” part in there.

      Of course, it’s for reasons like these that I post the disclaimer that I’m not an authority on celebrities – or any famous people – who may have or had a mental health issue. Aside from not knowing these celebrities personally, I have basically the same access to such information as everyone else – the Internet, books, articles, magazines, TV interviews, etc. Everything included in these Celebrity Health Week posts should be taken with a grain of salt (unless there is proof such as the magazine, interview, talk show, book, etc., to or in which the celebrity disclosed the information).

      If you’d feel more comfortable, I can change the information to simply “depression” or “feeling blue.”

      Again, thanks for your thoughts!

    • http://incommunion.org/forest-flier/ Jim Forest

      Dear Alicia Sparks,

      It’s good to be in touch. I am grateful for the work you are doing to help people struggling with chronic depression and other kinds of mental illness. This was my mother’s lifetime work (she was a very devoted psychiatric social worker). Having gone through two major bouts of depression in my own life, following the disintegration of important relationships, I know how grave and crippling an illness depression can be.

      Of course Dorothy Day struggled with depression. I am not sure I would care to know someone who is a stranger to depression. However, regarding in Dorothy Day, I would not describe this as “clinical depression” in the sense used, for example, in the Wikipedia entry:

      “Major depressive disorder, also known as major depression, unipolar depression, clinical depression, or simply depression, is a mental disorder characterized by a pervasive low mood, loss of interest in a person’s usual activities and diminished ability to experience pleasure…..

      “A major depressive episode can manifest with a variety of symptoms, but almost all patients display a marked change in mood, a deep feeling of sadness, and a noticeable loss of interest or pleasure in favorite activities. The psychological or mood change symptoms may include persistent sad, anxious or “empty” moods, and feelings of worthlessness, inappropriate guilt, helplessness, hopelessness, and/or pessimism, a sense of restlessness or irritability, and difficulty thinking, concentrating, remembering, or making decisions. Physical symptoms associated with depression include increased or decreased appetite and/or weight; insomnia, early morning awakening, or oversleeping; decreased energy, fatigue, feeling “slowed down” or sluggish; psychomotor agitation or psychomotor retardation; and persistent physical symptoms that do not respond to treatment, such as headaches, digestive problems, and chronic pain. “”

      I cannot recall seeing Dorothy being in a pervasive low mood, or being without her usual interest in other people, in life around her, with a diminished ability to experience pleasure, or such symptoms as loss of appetite, loss of weight, sluggish, etc, etc.

      On the contrary, I have really known anyone who took so profound an interest in others, had such a capacity for enjoyment, and found beauty in places most people wouldn’t.

      Thus I would agree with your proposal to remove the word “clinical” as I think, in Dorothy’s case, it’s really misleading.

      You must be a busy person but, if you have time, you might find Dorothy Day’s writings refreshing. For example, there is her autobiography, “The Long Loneliness.”

      Dorothy would have appreciated your work and that compassion that underlies it.

      Thanks for drawing my attention to the fine article Pat Jordan wrote about Dorothy in 1997, on the occasion of the 100-year anniversary of her birth. It’s good to re-read — a really excellent portrait of her.

      Friendly greetings,

      Jim Forest

      * * *

      extract from Pat Jordan’s Commonweal essay:

      …. Dorothy also told me that twice in her life she had overcome serious bouts of depression by reading herself out of them (she recommended Dickens), but said that if she ever were to experience such depression again, she would consider shock treatment.

      Another line of cure – which she had learned from her mother – was to clean the house. And then there were the theater and music: “Saw My Fair Lady. A very good cure for melancholy. Theme: Man’s capacity to change.” Again, “I am now listening to a concert, Brahms’s Second Symphony, joyful music to heal my sadness. All day I have felt sad. I am oppressed by a sense of failure, of sin.”

      On the conjunction between what Dorothy called “the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul,” she reflected: “It seems to me that they often intermingle.” This led her to prescribe Ruskin’s “Duty of Delight”: “I found a copy of Ruskin, The True and the Beautiful,” she wrote while visiting her daughter in Vermont, and “the beautiful quotation on the duty of delight. Making cucumber pickles, chili sauce, and grape juice. Delightful smells.” And the “duty” must be taken seriously, not only for oneself but “for the sake of others who are on the verge of desperation.”

      And then there was use of the other serious spiritual weapons: prayer, Scripture, community, the sacraments. The ancient Christian writers had long been concerned with acedia, spiritual sloth, which is associated with a failure against hope. Depression, a modern manifestation, is, in part, a constricting of that virtue, and of the power of the will to act. Day often prayed to Saint Ephraim, one of the desert fathers. He seemed to have struggled with the problem of discouragement, and spoke of the distress caused by his own procrastination. The best practical remedy for such a condition, Day noted, was “faithfulness to the means to overcome it: recitation of the psalms each day, prayer and solitude, and by these means arriving – or hoping to arrive – at a state of well-being.” The psalms she found particularly helpful in this regard: “I have stilled and quieted my soul” (Ps. 131), and “Relieve the troubles of my heart” (Ps. 25). She would also quote Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, chapter 8 – “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ” – and his advice not to judge others or even oneself, for Christ understands our failures: he was, after all, the world’s greatest failure.

      Among contemporary spiritual writings, she recommended in this regard Dom Hubert van Zeller’s Approach to Calvary: “Awoke at 5:30,” she penned in 1965. “Usual depression over failures, inefficiency, incapacity to cope. Van Zeller’s book invaluable, teaching on how to accept all this discouragement, which he says will increase with age…. One must just keep going.”

      And that connects with the matter of perseverance, a subject on which she corresponded sporadically with Thomas Merton: “I am often full of fear about my final perseverance,” she told him in 1960. But then, during his own long struggles with the problem, she advised: Your work “is the work God wants of you, no matter how much you want to run away from it.”

      She eventually came to terms with the fact that her difficulties were not going to end in this life. In the last book she gave me, Spiritual Autobiography of Charles de Foucauld (she was always giving gifts and books, prayer books and Bibles especially), she had underlined the following passage from de Foucauld: “Our difficulties are not a transitory state of affairs…. No, they are the normal state of affairs and we should reckon on being in angustia temporum ['in straightness of times,' Dan. 9:21] all our lives, so far as the good we want to do is concerned.” …. <<

      * * *

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    • gabriel

      Is this about Clinical depression only?

    • http://riotkitty.blogspot.com Riot Kitty

      Kurt Vonnegut’s son, Mark Vonnegut, wrote a book about his experience with mental illness called “The Eden Express.” I believe he has either schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder

    • Dr. John Finlay

      Hi all,

      I am an art historian and planning to do a small book on art and mental Illness (mainly painters) Here is an extract from something I published in the ‘Times Literary Supplement’ some years ago (2003), which I plan to re-vamp for the book (Seabrook Press, England), and which essentially explodes myths about many artists and mental illness. I’m not an expert on metal illness though have suffered very badly from mental illness very recently.

      ‘Against the Wolves’

      John Finlay

      In the popular imagination Vincent Van Gogh is an incurable madman driven to self-mutilation and suicide by a search for truth and beauty in art. Art historians struggle to change this perception of a tormented misanthrope: to show instead the complexity, subtlety of intellect and inherent nature of both the man and the artist. And yet, as well as art, literature was also central to Van Gogh’s life and work. This is something demonstrated not only in his drawings and paintings but also the prints he kept by painters and artists he knew or admired, and identified throughout his correspondence. Numerous collections of books, magazines and other objects—Vincent’s musée imaginaire—also show Van Gogh’s eclectic tastes in art and literature as well as the connection between his own paintings and the imagery that inspired him. As Van Gogh scholars have shown, the artist’s art and writings demonstrate the painter’s aesthetic, intellectual, ethical and political ideas. In terms of art and literature, Van Gogh’s works can be placed alongside those of other artists, thereby illustrating his attitude to subjects such as religion, nature, rural life, labour and the model. Relevant quotations from the artist’s letters, and the rest of his surviving correspondence, records around 800 references to works by over 150 authors, and he wrote to his brother Theo in 1882 declaring that his “consuming passion” for books was as great as his need for daily bread. In a letter to his sister Willemina (from Paris, 1887), Van Gogh describes his taste for ironic and rather fantastical literature; the sort of writing that is wholly at odds with the popular preconceived notion of his character:

      So I, for instance, who can count so many years of my life during which I lost any inclination to laugh -leaving aside whether or not this is my own fault – I feel the need for a really good laugh above all else. I’ve found it in Guy de Maupassant and there are others – Rabelais among the older writers, Henri Rochefort among those of today – who provide it as well – and Voltaire in Candide.

      Van Gogh often quoted Voltaire, and in particular Candide. He frequently alludes to the ludicrous Dr Pangloss, a “metaphysico-theologo-cosmolo-nigologist” of frightening optimism, who never fails to declare that: “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. In reality, Van Gogh could not possibly have held Panglossian views, but Voltaire was undoubtedly a kind of antidote to his acute bouts of existential ailment. As Van Gogh perceived it, society had changed little since Voltaire’s day; it is probably James the Anabaptist and his statement concerning existence, which best-suited Van Gogh’s own fundamental nature:

      Men, the Anabaptist said, must have somehow altered the course of nature; for they were not born wolves. But they have become wolves. God did not give them twenty-four pounders or bayonets. Yet they have made themselves bayonets and guns to destroy each other.

      As his letters demonstrate, Van Gogh was convinced that society’s evils grew “greater every day [and] it must be terrible without the support and comfort of faith.” Around 1880, he turned from faith to art; now it was painting that would recompense the disappointments of life and his finished paintings would help others find solace. Devotion to art, rather than religion was, for the artist, a form of consolation. There are a number of occasions in which he explains what art meant to him, such as when he wrote: “It’s some consolation that we [artists] continue to work with raw materials, not speculating but just trying to produce”. Here, Van Gogh seems to paraphrase the character of Candide, whose perceptiveness prompted the conclusion that “we must work without arguing, that is the only way to make life bearable”.
      It was Van Gogh’s love of nature and the countryside that encouraged him to seek solace in art. The artist’s ideas about the natural world were Enlightenment-inspired; he equated the countryside with paradise and idealized it as an innocent environment without the vices of the modern city. Van Gogh wrote to his parents that he was more likely to meet “a reasonable person in the country than in the city”. Such ideas were encouraged by his readings of Dickens, and Zola, and by Alfred Sensier’s La Vie et l’oeuvre de J.-F. Millet (1881), which romanticized the life of the artist among peasants.
      As scholars of Van Gogh art and writing have observed, the painter’s religious upbringing in the countryside of Brabant and the rural community of Zundert had a deep and lasting effect on his attitude towards nature and his admiration of landscape painting. Many historians have made the connection between Van Gogh’s religious beliefs and his approach to art and landscape, arguing convincingly that Van Gogh never forgot his native terrain and found consolation in painting it from memory as, for example, in Recollection of Brabant. Other writers and thinkers have made it clear that Van Gogh’s experience of nature largely came through his love of other artist’s work. Those who inspired him – and he kept a list – were Vermeer, Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Aelbert Cuyp, Van Goyen Hobbema, Koninck and Jacob van Ruisdael through to Constable, Delacroix and Monticelli as well as the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, Monet, Seurat, Signac and Cezanne.
      Van Gogh sought to capture the very essence of landscape in his paintings. He held a deep-rooted conviction that an artist had to be a true nature-lover and had to be totally immersed in nature, both physically and spiritually. He admired painters such as Monet, Pissarro and Cezanne for these reasons in particular, and he studied their colour effects, and the general luminosity of Impressionist painting. As he recalled, “One evening recently at Montmajour I saw a red sunset, its rays falling on the trunks and foliage of pines growing among a jumble of rocks, colouring the trunks and foliage with fiery orange, while the other pines in the distance stood out in Prussian blue against a sky of tender blue-green, cerulean. It was just the effect of that Claude Monet; it was superb”. However, it was probably Millet who had the greatest impact on Van Gogh’s work; it was Millet whom he described as the “perennial master” of his genre. He made copious studies of Millet’s many paintings of simple peasant life: “I now have seven copies out of
      ten of Millet’s ‘Travaux des Champs’. I find that [copying] teaches things, above all it sometimes provides consolation”. What particularly impressed him was the earlier painter’s representation of peasants living in supposed harmony with the land and nature: “That is the highest thing in art, and there art sometimes rises above nature – in Millet’s sower, for instance, there is more soul than in an ordinary sower in the field”. His own studies after Millet also evoke this idealized state, and suggest a closeness and sympathy with a simple life: “No, one must paint peasants as if one were one of them, as if one felt and thought as they do”.
      Ultimately, as many writers have argued, Van Gogh believed that life in his own time afforded little comfort, that only art and nature were capable of offering humanity any form of consolation. For Van Gogh, art had to be pure, true, and therefore beautiful, but most importantly it had to provide guidance and solace in times of need. He would certainly have agreed with Candide, that in order to banish the pain and anxiety of the world “we must go and work in the garden”. When Van Gogh looked back at his sojourn in the South of France, even though his time in the asylum at Saint-Remy had depressed him, he felt as convinced as ever in the idea of art as the supreme means of expression, and nature as the true source of solace. In describing Wheat field under Thunderclouds, the painter made these feelings very clear:

      I have painted …vast stretches of corn under troubled skies, and I did not go out of my way very much in order to try to express sadness, extreme loneliness . . . I am fairly sure that these canvases will tell you what I cannot say in words, that is, how healthy and invigorating I find the countryside.

      Vincent’s ‘choice’, his art and intellect, was one that celebrated nature in its purest form; an aesthetic to counteract fits of ailment and to find solace from those that had “become wolves.”

    • Jennifer Chapin

      What I want to say to this is “so, what”? Here is a nice little list but it doesn’t really say anything. Tell us what you are trying to say by posting it here. Thanks.

    • martina

      The book by Kay Jamison about Lord Byron and other poets is very helpful for understanding the connection between manic-depression, or bipolar disease, and both poetry and music. Several great musicians were also probably bipolar, judging from their life and work, and I think she names a few of them.

    • Raven Sundahl

      I would like to find your book. I definitely want to read what you have to say! I think you are a very talented writer. :)

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    • Joseph Ridgwell

      ive been checking out english artist michael fitzgerald at saatchi
      truly fascinating insight

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