Touched with fire?

Victor Hugo, one of many poets believed to have had a mood disorder

There’s nothing romantic about suicide. Or mental illness. Romeo and Juliet make for compelling characters, but no one should envy their fate. Those who champion the cause of suicide prevention are gathering at the Hayden Lawn at ASU in Tempe this Saturday for one of more than 40 “Out of Darkness” walks taking place around the country. They’re being presented by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which estimates that close to one million Americans attempt suicide each year. More than 36,000 Americans die by suicide each year. Think every 15 minutes.

Irving Berlin, one of many composers thought to have had a mood disorder

Depression and suicide get too little attention from a nation that seems at times incapable of focusing on more than a single challenge. I’m all for research and supports for people living with autism, cancer and diabetes. But 1 in 10 American adults report experiencing depression, which also strikes our youth — and it’s a disease that can kill.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention notes that 90% of all suicides are related to some form of mental illness, most often depression — which is actually quite treatable. Events like this Saturday’s “Out of Darkness” walk at ASU, which already has more than 250 registered walkers, remind us all to take suicide seriously — and to support prevention strategies that save lives. “Out of Darkness” campus walks help the foundation with research, education, public awareness, screenings, programs to support survivors of suicide and more, according to Dawn Hunter, chair of the group’s Arizona chapter.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of many writers considered to have had a mood disorder

For folks with a special interest in the intersection of art and mental illness, Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Touched With Fire” is an enlightening read. I first read the work when it was released in 1993. James and I were already several years into our journey of parenting a child with mental illness.

I’m revisiting the book this week, looking for insights into the relationship of creativity to mental illness — because “Touched With Fire,” which is subtitled “Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” is a comprehensive scholarly treatment of a topic that continues to hold great relevance.

Emily Dickinson, one of many poets thought to have had a mood disorder

The book includes an appendix listing writers, artists and composers with “probable cyclothemia, major depression, or manic-depressive illness” — which includes names familiar to those with even a cursory background in arts and  culture.

It seems the longest list belongs to poets. Think William Blake, Robert Burns, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Victor Hugo, John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Sexton, Walt Whitman and more. Also writers — Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henrik Ibsen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Tennessee Williams, Virginia Woolf and others.

Victor van Gogh, one of many artists thought to have had a mood disorder

Composers on Jamison’s “probable” list include George Frideric Handel, Gustav Mahler, Sergey Rachmaninoff, Robert Schumann and Peter Tchaikovsky — and “nonclassical composers and musicians” noted include Irving Berlin, Noel Coward, Stephen Foster and Cole Porter.

Jamison writes that “Many if not most of these writers, artists and composers had other health problems as well, such as medical illnesses, alcoholism or drug addiction.” Artists on the list include Thomas Eakins, Paul Gaugin, Vincent van Gogh, Michelangelo, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollock and many more.

Virginia Woolf, one of many writers thought to have had a mood disorder

“They are listed,” explains Jamison, “…because their mood symptoms predated their other conditions, because the nature and course of their mood and behavior symptoms were consistent with a diagnosis of an independently existing affective illness, and/or because their family histories…coupled with their own symptoms–were sufficiently strong enough to warrant their inclusion.”

For those of you wondering what qualifies Jamison to draw such conclusions, I offer two important facts. Jamison herself is living with manic-depressive illness, also called “bipolar disorder.” And she’s a professor of psychiatry with The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Her own struggles with mental illness are recounted in other works she’s published — including “An Unquiet Mind” and “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.”

Click here to learn more about Saturday’s “Out of Darkness” walk — and here to get additional information about suicide and suicide prevention. “Suicide is the third leading cause of death among teens and young adults and the second leading cause of death for college students,” according to Hunter. Every parent, educator and artist should be literate on the topic of suicide prevention because denial is a dangerous thing.

— Lynn

Note: NAMI Walks, another event raising mental health awareness, is scheduled for Oct. 20, 2012 (starting at the Arizona State Capitol). Click here to find additional resources through the Arizona Coalition for Suicide Prevention. Click here for details about an exhibit featuring Vincent van Gogh at the Arizona Science Center in Phoenix and here for details about an Arizona Theatre Company production of “F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby” at the Herberger Theater Center.

Coming up: More books from Lynn’s library


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