Are artistic people prone to suicide and depression? Does being a writer cause despair? Is there anything we can do about it? Listen as two award-winning writers and writing professors discuss the myths and realities of artists, depression, and suicide and brainstorm ways to cope, stave off depression, and help you hang onto your seat at the table as long as possible–and enjoy it. Listen to our discussion here.
The infamous Sunshine Skyway Bridge is so steep and high that it creates the optical illusion that you’re on an infinite highway up to the sky. If you’re brave enough to glance over the sides, you may see the remnants of the original bridge. In one of the worst bridge disasters in US history, during a blinding storm, a freighter crashed into the bridge and wiped it out. Thirty-five people couldn’t see far enough ahead to notice that the bridge was gone and just kept driving, right into thin air.
The new, hauntingly beautiful 430-foot-high bridge is a major suicide attraction. There’s even a website chronicling them. As beautiful as the bridge is, jumpers hit the water like concrete and drown in mangled agony. It’s not pretty, and somebody has to fish you out. Don’t do that to them.
Just after dawn on the morning of Friday, June 15, 2018, as I drove over the bridge, cars were breaking hard at the apex. We slowly passed three police cars and one passenger vehicle, a small blue car. Officers had exited their vehicles to bend at the waist and peer over the rail. As I crawled by, I hoped to see a driver in that small blue Honda.
I’ve never seen a car look so empty.
The Sunshine Skyway suicide website confirmed that someone had jumped right before I passed–sensors on the bridge dispatch police officers the instant a vehicle stops on the bridge. A body had been recovered, but not yet identified. I’ve been shaken ever since. At one of my lowest, darkest times, the Sunshine Skyway had called to me.
Even if you don’t know the victim, suicide has a dreadful reverberation. We all felt Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Robin Williams. After learning of a suicide, writers like me and many of my friends will recall Hunter S. Thompson, Anne Sexton, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and wonder if it’s a curse, or a destiny.
Does making art make you want to kill yourself? Or are depressed people drawn to creative pursuits? What’s up with the whole tortured artist thing? Experts like Dr. Michael Clarke of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine say creativity is correlated to depression. In an article about comedians and suicide, he claims that “creativity and mental illness often go hand in hand.” So does intelligence.
An article in Scientific American will trot it out for you. The article notes that the relationship between intelligence and mental illness is correlational, not causal. Just because they’re found together doesn’t mean one causes the other.
Poet Katie Riegel, who wrote powerfully and gorgeously about depression in her influential post, “Depression is a Trip,” sat down to talk with me in the wake of the Bourdain and Spade suicides. There aren’t easy answers or remedies. Suicide rates in the US are climbing, especially among women, particularly in our age range of 45-64. Katie and I do our best to identify possible causes and effects of suicide in creative people, in hope of saving ourselves and our fellow artists.