If you think that the incidence of suicide isn’t nearly as problematic as the media makes it out to be, consider that nearly 45,000 people die annually by their own hand in the United States alone.

Writers who battled mental illness

Photo by Mateus Lucena

The suicide of rock icon Chris Cornell in May left the world of music shocked and grieving and, when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington ended his life not even two months later, it was almost too much for the public to handle. Here were two beloved musical stars – one a celebrated and accomplished veteran and the other in the prime of his career – consumed by a darkness so thick and impenetrable that they saw no other way to escape their mental anguish but to leave this world behind.

Writers who battled mental illness

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While the deaths of the two singers – who also happened to be good friends – is undeniably tragic and have left a void in the lives of millions of adoring fans, the stark reality is that the vast majority of suicides occur away from the public stage. This means that the loved ones who are left behind often have to carry this unimaginable burden of pain with very little support.

In honor of National Suicide Prevention Week, and in keeping with the theme of this blog, I have compiled a short list of famous writers who battled mental illness. I’d also like to dedicate this blog post to my dearly departed friend Christiaan, who happened to be a great admirer of the first entry on this list.

Ernest Hemingway

Known for his economical style of writing, Hemingway remains one of the most respected and celebrated writers of the modern era. Despite his influence and success, the prolific author of such classics as The Old Man and the Sea and A Farewell to Arms battled mental illness his entire life, and was also a notoriously heavy drinker. Hemingway lost his father, brother and sister to suicide and, in 1961, the author ended his own life by shooting himself. It is believed that Hemingway suffered from a genetic condition that causes the body to load too much iron, which may have adversely affected his mental health.

Leo Tolstoy

Even though the influential Russian author died in 1910, his work is still widely read and enjoyed more than a century after his passing. Perhaps best-known for the epic piece of realist literature War and Peace, Tolstoy was born to Russian nobility and published his first full-length novel, Childhood, when he was just 24 years old.

Writers who battled mental illness

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Tolstoy’s early success and superhuman output, which includes novels, novellas, short stories and non-fiction works, came at a price, however, and when he reached middle age he became depressed, paranoid and disillusioned with life. The Russian giant died at the age of 82 after leaving his home in the dead of night in an apparent effort to escape his jealous and overbearing wife, Sofia.

Edgar Allan Poe

One of my all-time favorite writers of weird fiction, Poe, like Hemingway, was a heavy drinker and prone to bouts of melancholy.

Writers who battled mental illness


However, Poe also exhibited signs of what we know today as mania, leading many to believe that the troubled writer suffered from bipolar disorder. The circumstances around his death are somewhat bizarre and have led to much speculation.

Virginia Woolf

Woolf is another well-known author who is likely to have suffered from what was once called “manic depression” but has since been rebranded as bipolar disorder. The author started showing signs of the condition at a very young age, prone to frequent mood swings which alternated between extreme depression and manic, impulsive and often reckless behavior.

Woolf committed suicide by walking into the River Ouse with stones in her pockets at the age of 59.

Ingrid Jonker

I decided to conclude this list of famous writers who battled mental illness with an entry from my own country of birth, South Africa.

A tragic figure, Jonker has often been likened to Silvia Plath (who also suffered from depression) and eventually took her own life by walking into the sea and drowning.

Jonker was a prolific poet whose work, originally written in Afrikaans, has been translated into many different languages and deals with subjects such as heartbreak, death, oppression and her own struggles with mental illness.

Her heartrending poem Die kind is nie dood nie (“The child is not dead”) tells the story of a black baby killed by white soldiers at the height of the oppressive National Party’s tyrannical reign, which ended in 1994.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please know that there is free and completely confidential help available to you. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255.

Posted by Charl Mijnhardt

Charl Mijnhardt is an established freelance writer with a special interest in wellness and mental health. He is also an experienced technical writer with many years' experience writing for the security industry. He currently lives in South Africa with his wife, Nastasia, and his cat, Gizmo. Hire him to write engaging copy for your website, blog, e-book, newsletter or marketing communications.

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