Do You Know the Sylvia Plath Effect?

Published on 8/10/2020

(Photo: The British Library)

Female poets are at risk.

While writing an article about renowned female writers who suffered from depression, I came across the Sylvia Plath Effect. It was mentioned in passing, referring to one of the writers that would be mentioned in my article, but it clung to me.

The Sylvia Plath Effect focuses on how poets are more susceptible to mental illness than the wide population. Not a huge shock, right? But it goes a step further than that, for it considers poets to be at larger risk than any other creative writers. Even novelists typing away in a dark room for hours, even playwrights pouring their soul into works of drama. Poets are at the greatest risk of any individual or profession.

What is the Sylvia Plath Effect?

The Sylvia Plath Effect was first coined in 2001, by James C. Kaufman, a renowned psychologist. Kaufman believed that poets are the most susceptible to mental illness than any creative writer, and so he named the effect after Sylvia Plath, who committed suicide at the age of 30. Plath’s work is considered imperative in the discussion of mental illness, particularly her semi-biographical novel ‘The Bell Jar’.

Kaufman’s work demonstrated the truth to his claims, and he isn’t the only researcher to support it. In a study consisting of 1,629 writers, the participants were analyzed for any symptoms of a mental illness. They found that female poets were significantly more likely to display a mental illness than female fiction writers or male writers of any field.

Another study performed by the University of Kentucky found that female writers were not only at a higher risk for mood disorders, but also for panic attacks, generalised anxiety, drug abuse and eating disorders.

The causation was not explored, as they merely confirmed the direct relationship between creativity and psychopathology. It leads us to wonder the aged question of which came first: the chicken or the egg? Did individuals become poets due to their depression, or did their depression stem from their profession?

What comes next?

That’s the thing, countless researchers have investigated the subject, and the majority have emerged with significant findings, but nothing has come from it. So we know that writers are more likely to be mentally ill than another profession. We know that poets are more likely to be mentally ill than any other profession. We even know that female poets are at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to positive mental health. But nothing has changed. And you almost wonder: what could change? If I were to tell you that becoming a writer would ruin your mental health, would it actually stop you from pursuing your passion? We could increase awareness about a healthy lifestyle as a writer, like famed indie author Joanna Penn, who co-wrote a book with Dr. Euan Lawson on the subject. She even had an episode of her podcast focused on the subject of writers with depression. But maybe it is up to the individual to seek out such information, to follow it. We could work on the sense of community, try to reduce the bitterness of certain writing groups, but it takes each individual to partake.

We can also take it from the stance of the egg came first, if depression is causing people to become writers and poets. Do we stop it? Maybe it’s a relief from the ache, maybe it’s the best foot forward in that circumstance. Maybe we should be directing more people who suffer towards it.

Or maybe the results are heavily skewed, as writers are the ones who are speaking out on the matter. Perhaps accountants or botanists are struggling with mental illness too, but they don’t have this platform and voice. They don’t have the words to share the ache from their mind, and so they keep it tucked away and ignored. Perhaps the Sylvia Plath Effect is proof that writers are the ones sharing their mental illness more than other professions, as this seems to be the one field in which it isn’t considered something to penalise. I’m told I can’t be hired if I share my struggle with my mental illness online, but I’m comforted by the fact that it wouldn’t stop me from being a writer. Anything else, perhaps, but not writing.

Why do I disagree with this term?

There is a fantastic poet, who wrote a novel that has been translated into over 12 languages. More than that, it has found a home in so many people’s hearts, it spoke about mental illness when barely anyone else was ready to. And we have whittled her down to a disorder. We have whittled her down to her worst days. She is an ‘effect’, a label for poets being the most screwed up. How is that fair? How is that her legacy? Not even helping those struggling, not even a way forward, but just an observation of an issue.

Do not remember Sylvia Plath as a psychological finding or a worrying correlation, remember her for her brilliant mind and incredible words.

A cake of soap,

A wedding ring,

A gold filling.

Herr God, Herr Lucifer



Out of the ash

I rise with my red hair

And I eat men like air.

-- Lady Lazarus, Sylvia Plath



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