It is said that creative people are far more likely to suffer from mental health problems and the world has no shortage of writers who have attempted or succeeded suicide. In June 2013, broadcaster, presenter and writer Stephen Fry went public about his own mental health problems and several attempts at suicide over the years. This prompted further debate about mental health and how western society views it. Here is a list of ten writers who ultimately succeeded at ending their own lives.
1. Stefan Zweig
This Austrian was one of the most famous writers of the 1920s-1940s. Born to Jewish heritage, he left Austria for England just as Hitler was coming to power but later crossed the Atlantic to the USA before ending up in Brazil. Growing increasingly depressed at the war and growing intolerance, particularly of anti-Semitism, Zweig and his second wife took an overdose of barbiturates. The suicide note read ‘I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labour meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on Earth’.
2. Anne Sexton
Another American poet, Sexton won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1967 and her work was heavily themed toward mental health and thoughts of suicide as well as highly personal details about her private life. It was her therapist who encouraged her to take up poetry as a release and within a few short years she was an award-winning poet. She committed suicide through using her car to induce carbon monoxide poisoning in her own garage in 1974.
3. Virginia Woolf
This is a name that needs no introduction as one of the foremost modernist writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She had a history of mental illness and spent three separate periods at a private home dedicated to treating women with nervous disorders. It is said that Woolf was another individual whose mental health inspired her creativity. Following completion of her last great work she felt the terrible onset of another depression and chose to drown herself in the River Ouse, leaving her husband a heartfelt suicide note.
4. Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway similarly lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and he is considered one of the greats of American literature; his understated style of writing remains a heavy influence and enjoyed today. He travelled the world as a journalist reporting from wartime London, the Spanish Civil War and the Normandy landings. He survived two plane crashes in Africa during this globetrotting career. However, these accidents caused him to suffer ill health and daily pain and in 1961 he shot himself at his home in Idaho, USA.
5. Cesare Pavese
Another poet, he also dabbled in fiction and literary criticism in his native Italy where he is famous; unfortunately many people outside of his country of birth have not heard his name. Despite his heritage, his biggest passion was English language and most of his early career was as a translator. He is considered fundamental to bringing British and American classics and contemporary writers to Italy. He took his own life with an overdose of barbiturates citing a variety of reasons for doing so.
6. John Berryman
Berryman was an American poet who had suffered the tragedy of suicide at an early age when his father took his own life. Berryman was just twelve years old and this would affect the poet for the rest of his life, eventually he would write about his struggle at coming to terms with it. He struggled with chronic depression and alcohol most of his life, married three times and eventually jumped from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
7. Sylvia Plath
If it is said that creative people are more likely to commit suicide; it is also said that poets are more likely than any other type of writer. Sylvia Plath is a case in point and the phenomenon is named after her (The Sylvia Plath Effect). She suffered mental health problems most of her life and took her own life in 1963 after having been prescribed a course of antidepressants which had not had sufficient time to kick in. She put her head in a gas oven on the day of her death, ensuring that the other occupants of the house would be out.
8. John Kennedy Toole
It is often said that an artist’s genius in not recognised during his lifetime. If such a statement could apply to any writer, then Toole is that person. Persistently rejected in life, his mother took up the cause after his death and successfully got his work published. His novel A Confederacy of Dunces, won him a posthumous Pulitzer Prize. He was just 31 years old at his death having suffered depression and paranoia most of his short life.
9. David Foster Wallace
Wallace is the most recent suicide in this list; he took his own life in 2008 at the age of 46. An American novelist, short story writer and Professor at Pomona College in California, his best known work is 1996′ Infinite Jest which was selected in the top 100 Time Magazine’s Best English language novels 1923-2005. Wallace, another lifelong depressive, hanged himself. His father later commented that antidepressants had permitted him to lead a productive life.
10. Walter M. Miller Jr.
A well-known name in American science fiction, he is the author of the celebrated A Canticle for Leibowitz. Though it was the only novel he would ever publish while alive (a second would be published the year after his death), it was short stories that formed the backbone of his career. Suffering from what we might recognise today as PTSD, he stopped publishing after that famous novel and became a recluse. At the time of his death he was compiling a sequel to the famous novel.
This list is not exhaustive; Wikipedia lists in the region of 300 famous writers whose lives ended through the tragedy of suicide. Not all suffered mental illness; some were terminally ill or had suffered such horrifying injury that they could simply no longer bear to go on living. Whether those individuals end their lives due to mental health, terminal illness or any other reason, the act is still a taboo in the western world.