For Some Writer's, No Happy Ending

Writing leads the pack of ten careers with highest risk of depression, according to survey

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

"That terrible mood of depression of whether it's any good or not is what is known as The Artist's Reward," said author Ernest Hemingway, who knew a thing or two about depression. The renowned writer shot himself in July 1961.

Hemingway's suicide serves as a grim marker for what ranks as one of the ten careers with the highest rates of depression. Writers, along with artists and entertainers, lead the pack for depression-prone careers, followed by teachers, health-care workers, food-service staff, social workers, administrative-support staff, maintenance and ground workers, financial advisors and accountants, and salespeople. The findings are based on a recent survey, which found men are particularly susceptible to depressive episodes.

Novelist Simon Brett did not find the study results surprising.

Writers spend long hours sitting on their own, Brett said. "Self-examination and self-doubt is inevitable."

Hemingway battled with depression as did other writers whose lives were plagued with personal demons. Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Anne Sexton and Arthur Koestler all committed suicide.

Modern writers may even face an even more crippling prognosis. Quiet and introverted as a number of writers are, they may find it stressful to have their work analyzed and assessed publicly, especially since and other online venues have given the public a forum for voicing their own critical reactions to works.

Unfortunately, writers such as Hemingway and Plath didn't have access to the innovative and generally effective therapies and treatments for major depression (characterized by five or more symptoms of the illness lasting for two weeks or longer) that are available today. Some of these symptoms include fatigue, agitation, dramatic change in appetite, thoughts of suicide and hopelessness, and withdrawal from usual activities.

Most people benefit from a combination of antidepressant drug treatment and psychotherapy. Some common, generally safe antidepressants include selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Prozac®, Lexapro® and Celexa®. After building up effective levels in the bloodstream, SSRIs block the reabsorption (reuptake) of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, which, in turn, elevates mood.

Left untreated, depression can result in dire effects, including suicide and, according to a recent study, double the risk of dementia.

"While it's unclear if depression causes dementia, there are a number of ways depression might impact the risk of dementia," said study author Jane Saczynski, PhD, with the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, MA. "Inflammation of brain tissue that occurs when a person is depressed might contribute to dementia, [and] certain proteins found in the brain that increase with depression may also increase the risk of developing dementia."

That risk increases if the patient has diabetes. Adults who have both diabetes and major depression are more than twice as likely to develop dementia compared to adults with diabetes only, according to a study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

While writers may have to work at fending off the demerits of depression and despair, poet Gwyneth Lewis said its amazing more writers don't suffer from major depressive disorder, "given that writers do spend a lot of time on their own, and that the worldly rewards for poetry are minuscule, and given that most of the time you don't know whether what you are doing is any good."

Novelist Marian Keyes on her Web site earlier this year said she has been "knocked sideways" by a multitude of emotions, not just depression, including agitation, anxiety, terror, panic, grief, desperation, despair "and an almost irresistible desire to be dead."

This must have been the Artist's Reward Hemingway referred to.

Still, many writers contend their product is not born out of grief and consider the adage "suffering produces great art" to be a load of nonsense.

After all, if a writer is clinically depressed, Lewis said, "[they] can't think about rhyme."

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
December 13, 2010
Last Updated:
February 16, 2011