Thursday, June 16, 2011

Poets, Writers & Suicide -- What's the link? And what can we do about it?

It's quite possible that the leading cause of death for prominent female poets in 2009 was suicide. We lost the poets Deborah Digges, Sarah Hannah, and Rachel Wetzsteon -- as well as the son of the renown poet Sylvia Plath, who herself died famously by suicide in 1963, asphyxiating on the fumes from a gas oven. Although 2009 proved particularly hard, literary history is rife with examples – Woolf, Hemingway, Berryman, Sexton – the list goes on -- and, in 2008, David Foster Wallace.

The link between writers and death by suicide is a frightening one. Why does the link exist? Is writing the cause or the effect? Is it part of the disease or the cure?

I tried to place a piece on suicide and the literary community in early 2010, but the magazines where the larger literary community usually joins to discuss important issues amongst ourselves – places like Poets & Writers and The AWP Writers’ Chronicle – wouldn’t touch it. Was it that the subject was too difficult? Perhaps it was simply the failure of the writer – me. I wasn’t approaching it the right way – with enough clarity.

My connection to suicide is a deeply personal one. In 2004, I found the dead body of my dear friend who had shot herself. I’d spent the previous five years grappling with the hectors of loss, sorrow, as well as guilt and blame. A few weeks after the death, I started a post at Florida State University where a fellow writer introduced me to Thomas Joiner, one of the world’s leading experts on death by suicide.

Among those who’ve attempted or have died by suicide, Joiner has isolated three factors – “the feeling of being a burden on loved ones, the sense of isolation, and the learned ability to hurt oneself.” What makes Joiner’s theory so compelling is that it’s the first to truly explain all types of suicides – from suicide-bombers to teenage overdoses and, of course, writers.

Poets were stunned and shaken by the suicides in 2009. I talked to some who feared writing suddenly, as if it could draw them into darkness. The conversations were somber but also magical and marked almost by superstition, as if poets live and die by the muse, having struck some cruel deal.

While watching the new Bobby Fischer documentary, I listened to chess players talk about how chess itself can be held accountable for the mental problems that some players develop – as if what makes them great is also what makes them susceptible to certain mental illnesses, and, again, I returned to the sometimes deadly issues that some writers struggle with.

After talking to poets about the suicides, I was struck by the lack of information and went back to Joiner, asking him if he could shed any light on the subject.

Joiner’s best guess is that there is a temperamental predilection that causes (among other things): a) an attraction to words and writing as a career; and b) a higher than average suicide risk. That predilection is what might be called a cyclothymic temperament (cyclothymia is an attenuated form of bipolar illness).

If this is a writer’s temperament, he explained, the writer will usually be either a little up - good for word flow, ideas, and energy - or a little down - good for sensitivity and feeling. Because of the up times, the writer will be more likely than others to believe that he/she can make a living as a writer, but is much more vulnerable than others to full-blown major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder.

If it's full-blown bipolar disorder, odds are the writer will be too incapacitated to make a career of writing. Here, Joiner noted that there are exceptions – like Robert Lowell who had very severe bipolar illness that, today, could be treated and controlled.

And if it's a major depressive disorder, it's quite incapacitating while in episode, but not out of episode, and some writers can make it even when they have to spend, say, 20% of their time incapacitated by depression, and they can definitely make it if the illness is well controlled. And, here, Joiner noted that David Foster Wallace had kept his disease in control for most of his life.

“Still,” Joiner said, “severe major depressive disorder is a force of nature and it kills people every day. It may well have killed Ms. Wetzsteon and it definitely killed David Foster Wallace after a fatal decision to go off meds.”

Joiner’s link to suicide isn’t simply as a researcher. His father died by suicide when Joiner was a young man. His book, Why People Die by Suicide, begins with an essay that recounts his personal ties to his research, and he has a new book out called Myths about Suicide.

The question remains, however -- does writing contribute to Joiner’s risk factors. 1) Are writers – especially those struggling with depression -- more likely to feel like a burden? 2) Can the solitary act of writing increase the sense of isolation? 3) Through writing, can writers learn to desensitize themselves, leading to the learned ability to hurt oneself?

Or is it the opposite? 1) By writing, by giving us their gifts of language and image, can writers feel more of use? 2) By writing, writers join a literary community where they might more easily find understanding. (The rise in MFA programs over the last few decades alone may have saved lives by creating community and personal ties between writers) and 3) As Joiner puts it, “The space of writing could be (and I think probably is) space for many things - the development of wisdom, for example, the deepening of verities like courage, honor, loyalty, and pity.”

For a long time, suicide has been shrouded in silence and shame, something that families of victims have often hidden from view. The culture of silence hurts those who are at risk. The more we speak openly and raise awareness of risk factors, the better we can come to understand the underlying issues and the better equipped we are to help those who are suffering – and not just writers. (The Department of Defense is establishing the Military Suicide Research Consortium, with Joiner as one of the researchers at the helm.)

Psychologists like Joiner are gathering more research, raising awareness of risk factors, making great strides in treatment. After sorrowful losses in the face of this “force of nature,” I have to believe that there is hope.

*Suicide Hotline Phone Number: 1-800-273-TALK -- 1-800-273-8225.

(The first image above is Virginia Woolf and the second Sylvia Plath.)