Does the ‘Sylvia Plath Effect’ make sense?

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sylvia plath

Popular culture has long labeled poets as depressed and creative scientists as crazy. In fact, the idea of a link between creativity and mental illness goes back to the time of Aristotle, when he wrote that distinguished philosophers, politicians, poets, and artists all have inclinations toward “melancholia.”

Some studies have supported this concept, suggesting that writers, artists, and others are more expected to have a mental illness and that people with certain mental illnesses appear somewhat more likely to be creative.

Poets retain an unbelievable creative side which could often stem from melancholia. The poems written by them show their potential talent to put across the range of emotions and thoughts in their very being. But, it is also due to this incomplete insight, poets are considered to be depressed.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath
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“How did I know that someday – at college, in Europe, somewhere, anywhere – the bell jar, with its stifling distortions, wouldn’t descend again?”- The Bell Jar, written by Sylvia Plath.

Sylvia Plath was considered as one of the most renowned poets and authors of the 20th century. Some of her famous published collections were The Colossus and Other Poems, Ariel and The Bell Jar, a semi-autobiographical novel. The Bell Jar is a barely disguised autobiography about one girl’s spiral into depression including suicide attempts, hospital stays and shock treatment therapy. The bell jar is used as a symbol for depression the protagonist felt as if trapped under a bell jar, muffled and numb.

Sylvia predicted her own future when she wrote from the perspective of her character. Even with marriage, children, a successful career as a poet and a novelist, Sylvia’s own bell jar did descend on February 11, 1963. She suffered from clinical depression her entire life until she killed herself by putting her head in the oven with the gas on, at the age of thirty.

The Sylvia Plath Effect

James C Kaufman, a psychologist developed a theory called “The Sylvia Plath Effect” which explains the relation between creativity, depression, and suicide. Sylvia Plath’s tragic life and death was enough indication for Kaufman to explore the ubiquity of mental illness among poets and other creative minds like musicians, authors, and painters.

Kaufman had conducted two studies through which he had confirmed that women poets were more susceptible to mental illnesses and died at an early age mostly by committing suicide. Of course, there were many who opposed this theory of his, but a study conducted by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Kentucky Medical Centre in 1994 attested to Kaufman’s approach. But that’s also because women are more susceptible to depression. So in a population of poets, women will have a higher percentage of depression which might have nothing to do with creativity.

Kaufman had been studying creativity for nearly twenty years. In 2001, when the media called out to him, he was happy to give ideas about the causes of ‘The Sylvia Plath Effect.’ Articles began to be published in The New York Times, CNN and many others. He encountered a considerable amount of misinterpretations of his findings. Many assumed that all female writers and poets were mentally ill or that every poet, writer or creative person was likely to have a mental illness.

But, as Kaufman matured and studied further in the aspect of Creativity, he seemed less in awe of The Sylvia Plath Effect. He felt like he had spoken too soon and he should have researched further into the effect. Research as such is often oppressed by procedural problems, including selection bias, controls that are not blinded, reliance on biographies that might play up mental illness, retrospective intentions and unclear definitions of creativity.

 According to a psychologist, James Pennebaker, there is a high possibility that writing poetry may have kept Sylvia Plath alive longer than she would have. But there is also a counter-argument that being in poetry is a real tough way to make a living with such a high rejection rate.

Sylvia Plath
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With the rising rate of mental illness among the public today, the question remains. Do you agree with the Sylvia Plath Effect?

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