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Famous Literary Greats Who Had Mental Illness

writers with mental illness

Their works have inspired generations. Their words have been a solace for millions of souls. Their personalities have served as cannon fodder for literature enthusiasts and historians for ages. They continue to intrigue people because they make them laugh, cry and become emotionally invested with their contributions to literature.

But what most people don’t know about these larger-than-life personalities is that they were flawed. Some of them had their personal demons, some of them endlessly wresting with the pitfalls of mental illness, all the while lending credence to the fact that creativity is linked to mental health.

Let’s take a look at some of these literary greats with a history of mental illness. They may have achieved greatness with their works but they were still hostage to oftentimes the most debilitating mental illness issues.


1. Sylvia Plath

She’s famous for writing many great books, with morbidity and depressive episodes a recurring theme in her works. When she was in college, she fell into a depressive episode and had to be administered shock treatment therapy. Her hospitalization was a precursor to how bad her mental illness would get with the passage of time.

During this time, she wrote her most famous work, The Bell Jar. And it’s easy to see how her own experience with mental illness factored into her magnum opus. Today, there’s a whole term named after her – The Sylvia Plath effect. The premise behind this term was that creative people are more prone and susceptible to fall into depressive tendencies.

She made numerous suicide attempts and finally succeeded in 1963. Her doctor used to prescribe her medication for clinical depression. Sylvia Plath had her fair share of mood swings, impulsive tendencies and a hot-headed temper. Even the slightest hint of rejection would push her into an extreme bout of dejection and a heightened state of unwanted-ness. All these aspects figure heavily in her poems, lending her works an authentic flair of having experienced issues, like self-loathing, suicide and dysfunction firsthand.


2. Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy’s troubles with depression and mental illness began well into the middle age. He produced a literary work that detailed his discontentedness with the world at large in A Confession. His illness, when it reared its ugly head, was intense and not gradual.

His rumination proved to be the driving force behind his themes about philosophy, art and life. By looking at his own distress, his literary works became a reflection of his overall mental state. Unlike Plath, he never contemplated suicide, because he thought he didn’t have the courage for it. He mocked himself as a moral failure due to this fact.

Tolstoy, however, was lucky to escape his mental maladies. He eventually found God, became devout and gave up the notion of suicide once and for all. He died aged 82, leaving the literary world all the poorer for it.


3. Virginia Woolf

The celebrated writer was beset with depression from a young age, some studies putting her first brush with mental illness at 15. Where most writers celebrated their depression in their works, Virginia Woolf found her illness frequently interfered with her creative moments, hindering her works with intermittent mood swings, sleeplessness, migraines and hallucinations.

Virginia Woolf ended her life in 1941, her fights with mental illness issues eventually getting their way with her.

These are three famous literary greats who had a tryst with mental illness. There are several others, but that is a story for another day.

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