Sylvia Plath effect
The Sylvia Plath effect is a term coined by psychologist James C. Kaufman in 2001 to refer to the phenomenon that poets are more susceptible to mental illness than other creative writers. Although many studies (e.g., Andreasen, 1987; Jamison, 1989; Ludwig, 1995) have demonstrated that creative writers are prone to suffer from mental illness, this relationship has not been examined in depth. This early finding has been dubbed “the Sylvia Plath effect,” and implications and possibilities for future research are discussed. Kaufman's work further demonstrated that female poets were more likely to suffer from mental illness than any other class of writers. In addition, female poets were more likely to be mentally ill than other eminent women, such as politicians, actresses, and artists.
The effect is named after Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide at the age of 30 after several attempts throughout her life.
In Study One, 1,629 writers were analyzed for signs of mental illness. Female poets were found to be significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness than female fiction writers or male writers of any type. Study Two extended the analysis to 520 eminent women (poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, visual artists, politicians, and actresses), and again found the poets to be significantly more likely to experience mental illness.
In another study performed by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical Center, female writers were found to be more likely to suffer not only from mood disorders, but also from panic attacks, general anxiety, drug abuse, and eating disorders. The rates of multiple mental disorders were also higher among these writers. Although it was not explored in depth, abuse during childhood (physical or sexual) also loomed as a possible contributor to psychological issues in adulthood. The cumulative psychopathology scores of subjects, their reported exposure to abuse during childhood, mental difficulties in their mothers, and the combined creativity scores of their parents represented significant predictors of their illnesses. The high rates of certain emotional disorders in female writers suggested a direct relationship between creativity and psychopathology, but the relationships were not clear-cut. As the results of the predictive analysis indicated, familial and environmental factors also appeared to play a role.
Although it has been suggested that Plath did not intend to kill herself, Dr. John Horder (her close friend), felt she was at risk and prescribed her antidepressants just mere days before her death. He also visited with her daily and made many attempts to have her admitted to a hospital. Upon her refusal, he made arrangements for a live-in nurse.
Some critiques have argued that because anti-depressants can take up to three weeks to take effect, her prescription from Horder may not have been of any help. Others say that Plath's American doctor had warned her never again to take the anti-depressant drug prescribed by Horder as it was found to worsen her depression, but he supposedly prescribed it under a proprietary name which she did not recognize.
Plath, on February 11, 1963, was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in her kitchen after thrusting her head in the oven. She sealed the rooms between the kitchen and her sleeping children with wet towels and cloths.
In Western societies, studies have shown that women have higher rates of mental illness than men. From early adolescence through adulthood, women are twice as likely as men to experience depression. Furthermore, it has been shown in certain studies that married women are more likely to suffer from ailments such as depression than single women. In relation to the effect proposed by Kaufman, it should be noted that Sylvia Plath was married at the time of her suicide.
Plath's illness and suicide have spawned many articles in scientific journals, but almost all have been focused on issues of psychodynamic explanation and have been unsuccessful in dealing directly with the clinical history and diagnosis. With premature death as a strict censor, one can speculate that, at some point, had she lived longer, she might have developed a manic psychosis. Undeniably, the view has been broadly proliferated that hers was a typical manic-depressive illness.
- Kaufman, J. C. (2011). The sylvia plath effect: Mental illness in eminent creative writers. The Journal of Creative Behavior, 35(1), 37-50. doi: 10.1002/j.2162-6057.2001.tb01220.x
- Lee, F. R. (April 24, 2004). Going early into that good night. New York Times, Arts p, 1, 4.
- Ludwig, A. (n.d.). Mental illness and creative activity in female writers. (1994). Am J Psychiatry, 151(11), 1650-6. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7943456
- "Rhyme, reason and depression". (February 16, 1993). The Guardian. Accessed 2010-07-09.
- "Rhyme, reason and depression". (February 16, 1993). The Guardian. Accessed 2013-04-16.
- Guardian Article. 18 August 2001.Hughes letter reveals his Plath reconciliation hope Accessed 2013-04-16
- Nolen-Hoeksema, S. (n.d.). Gender differences in depression. (2001). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(5), 173-176. doi: 10.1111/1467-8721.00142
- Cooper, Brian (2003 June). Sylvia Plath and the depression continuum. J R Soc Med. 96(6): 296–301. PMCID: PMC539515
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