I have come across something which I found profoundly disturbing, and that is the so called “Sylvia Plath effect.” This is the theory that poets, specifically female poets, are more likely to suffer from mental illness.
Before I continue any further with my disdain, I would like to make clear that my abhorrence for this phenomenon does not mean that I do not think it is true; I have no background in psychology aside from my knowledge of my own mental health for me to make a “medical” opinion on this, and I am sure that the people who coined the term have done a lot more research than I have. No, I am strictly talking about my loathing for the concept in general.
I have long idolized the poets Virginia Woolf, Sara Teasdale, and Sylvia Plath. The three of them write in a sort of romanticized sadness that, while it can be perceived as problematic, I find comforting and loving. But more than that, these three women were influential poets who took the world by storm due to their unique and melodic writing style. The fact that all three of them lost their battle with mental health is simply another aspect of their lives. This aspect is important; it is always imperative to talk about mental health and the effects of it. However, the idea that they are only such influential writers because they are mentally ill is ludacris. Even more absurd is the idea that their gift caused their mental illnesses.
It is hard to explain exactly what about this theory that I find so offensive, but seeing as it is my job to put things into words, I will try my very best. I am mentally ill. I have severe anxiety (both social and general), I have bouts of depression due to feelings of inadequacy, and I suffer from derealization (a form of dissociation) that turns my world into a cloudy dream.
I am also a writer. I’ve been writing since I was a little girl, having recently rediscovered a plethora of short stories that I wrote while in elementary school. I consider my concentration of writing to be poetry; I have been posting poems on my Instagram story for months now, and I am currently in the process of getting a degree in creative writing.
Just because I am these two things does not mean that one has caused the other. I am not mentally ill because I am a poet, nor am I a poet because I am mentally ill. These two facts about myself simply coexist in the same way that the facts that I am short and I have brown eyes coexist. Yes, it is true that my poetry and my mental health overlap occasionally, but that is not indicative of the causes between either of them. My mental illnesses are because of chemical imbalances in my brain, not because I choose to use metaphors and similes at every passing chance.
I believe that the reason this theory even exists is because so many poets, such as Virginia Woolf, Sara Teasdale, and Sylvia Plath have written pieces detailing their experiences with mental health. What scholars and scientists alike have failed to reconcile is that they are using their chosen art form as a means of expressing their emotions; Vincent van Gogh was not depressed because he painted, but rather used painting as an emotional outlet. He created works that were inspired by his illness, and ones that were not, but one did not cause the other. Similarly, the incredible female poets I’ve mentioned above have written pieces detailing their experiences with mental health (Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar comes to mind), but they have also written pieces that are not relevant to their mental health (such as Sara Teasdale’s poem “Stars”). One does not choose to become a poet simply because one is ill, and one does not become ill by becoming a poet.
When I choose to write a poem about the demons that swarm my mind, it is in the same vein as when I write a poem about heartbreak or love: it is an emotion I am feeling at the given moment. But my love for writing started long before I was plagued, and I find it a bit offensive for people to assume that my biggest love could have caused my affliction, or vice versa.