Friday, 10 April 2015

A Creeping Silence

Blues - depression, low spirits
from adjectival 
blue low-spirited.
Late 14c.

I thought long and hard about the subject of this blog, first, because on the face of it, it doesn’t have much to do with writing, and that’s what we’re doing here, right?  But also because it’s one of those subjects that We Don’t Like To Mention. A bit like Granny’s Little Secret, some things are best left undisturbed. 
Disturbed: past participle adjective from disturb. Meaning "emotionally or mentally unstable", and used as one of the many euphemisms associated with mental health issues. Which is precisely why I’d like to talk about it today. 

Now, quite frankly, mental health is a vast topic which I cannot hope to do justice, so I’m going to focus on the implications for us as writers, as there can be few who have not been affected, either directly or indirectly, by Winston Churchill’s black dog.

It’s a well-known - if not yet fully understood - fact that there is a distinct correlation between creative personality types and anxiety and depression. That being so, if you aren’t one of those directly touched, you will know someone who is. Touched: " stirred emotionally," mid-14c., past participle adjective from touch (v.). 

Alice G Walton said in Forbes not long ago, ‘...there’s something to be said for the highly-sensitive individual theory - that some of us may just be more in tune with the world, comedy and tragedy alike,’  
Many people go through a period of the blues.  Depression has been associated with creativity for as long as mankind has written about it. Aristotle is reputed to have claimed that ‘no great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness’, and Robert Burton, a sixteenth-century English scholar attributed positive aspects of creativity to depression in his thousand-page treatise, The Anatomy of Melancholy. 

 Northamptonshire poet, John Clare (1793 - 1864), after years struggling with melancholy, was finally institutionalised with severe depression and delusions. Yet it was while in the asylum that he wrote one of his most famous poems, I Am.

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—

And when John Keats wrote Ode On Melancholy, he did so from personal experience.

But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,

Despite its long history, depression has been viewed with suspicion. The very description as a ‘mental illness’ makes it both difficult to identify because of its invisibility and subject to misinterpretation. Taboo surrounds it. We have few problems revealing we’ve had ‘flu or a broken leg, yet many people are unwilling to stand up and say, ‘I have a mental health problem.’ And why? Because there is still an element which sees depression as a matter of choice or a weakness. “Just try to be positive,” one genuinely helpful, but clueless, tutor told a severely depressed university student. “She’s just attention seeking,” one chap said of his elderly mother when the poor woman was beside herself with despair. 

This unfortunate attitude towards depression has its roots in Classical antiquity when it was considered to be a sign of lassitude and a fault in character.(1) Throughout the medieval period, melancholy became associated with a sinful and slothful nature - a spiritual weakness - which lingers in peoples’ attitudes even today. Church leadership and communities are not immune to misconceptions. 
Melancholy: condition characterized by
sullenness, gloom, irritability,
from Old French melancolie
black bile, ill disposition, anger, annoyance (13c.),

Who hasn’t had moments of self-doubt over the course of their writing career? Self-doubt and days of darkness do not, of course, equate to mental illness, but they give  a glimpse into the persistent dark world of depression. 

Statistics vary.(2) It is estimated that 350,000 people worldwide suffer from depression at some point in their lives, and with a significant number developing  persistent low mood, we cannot afford to ignore this creeping tide of silence. 

Writers are often blessed with sensitive and insightful observances of the depth and breadth of human experience that make them perhaps more prone to depression. Coupled with irregular hours and uncertain income, fear of failure and high levels of anxiety can haunt even the most successful writer.

Next month is Mental Health Awareness Week.(3) Identifying the signs of anxiety and depression is the first step in acknowledging them. Through understanding we are better able not only to support our friends and family, but recognise the warning signs in ourselves. 

The last word goes to John Clare, again from his poem, I Am.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

(1) Medieval humoral medicine inherited ancient Greek (famously Galen and Hippocratic) theories attributing depression to an excess of black bile, one of the body's four humors.

A short, personal and watchable account of one man’s struggle with depression:

Writing as CF Dunn, Claire creates romantic thrillers with a historical twist, drawing on a degree in history and a career in literacy development to write stories that touch on people’s frailty and their unexpected strengths. Everyone has a story to tell, and she explores how the legacy of the past has an impact on the present and inevitably shapes the future.  

With a historian husband, two creative daughters and a quirky Corgi, she divides her time between running a specialist dyslexia and autism school she founded in Kent, and writing in Cornwall.

C.F. Dunn 
Romantic thrillers ~ with a twist
Secret of the Journal series: Mortal Fire ~ Death Be Not Proud ~ Rope of Sand ~ Realm of Darkness (2016)


  1. I have suffered for many years and this has spoken into low week. The aloneness from working at home and writing often exasperates feelings of pointlessness. This is a great reminder that I am not alone. Thank you for tackling the taboo

    1. Depression is, by its very nature, a lonely place to be. You can be surrounded by people yet unable to reach out to the world. With a need for a degree of introspection and soul-searching, is it any wonder depression and anxiety stalk creative individuals - writers included? You are not alone, Tania. God bless. X

  2. A brave and insightful post, Claire - thank you.

    1. Thank you, Fiona. It's such a huge topic to do justice to.

  3. Honest, informative and kind. Just like you really.

  4. Thanks for tackling this subject, Claire. And it's not just depression, but other mental health issues that still remain suspect and hidden. Very difficult for the one who suffers.

    1. Yes indeed, Adrianne, and also difficult for the family and friends to see someone they care for suffer knowing there is no easy solution. Nor is it something they can discuss openly with other people and gain some support for the burden they might carry in caring for someone with a mental health issue. Thank goodness there is a growing awareness out there, albeit slowly.

  5. This is a great post and opens up a whole topic that we tend to avoid because we are not comfortable with the implications. Well done Claire :)

  6. Thanks for taking the time to read it, Deborah.

  7. This quite a piece of research on a topic which was certainly taboo in the Christian Union when I was at Uni. (Though I had not found that attitude elsewhere - being a straight-down-the-line Anglican). Christians were supposed to be full of joy and peace, naturally, since they knew Jesus ...but Christians doctors were becoming aware that this was a thoroughly unhelpful and un-insightful position. Our daughter is a mental health nurse: we are very impressed with her decision to do this. Some of the treatments they need to give are quite upsetting for the staff themselves - both sides need our prayers ... Depression is (physically) a chemical imbalance, and nobody should ever be ashamed of having it.

    1. How interesting and very true. Even the term 'mental health' can be unhelpful because it has negative connotations and doesn't give clarity to what is a physical imbalance.

  8. Very true piece of writing.
    Creativity and expressiveness helps.
    This is our ethos too:

  9. A profound and courageous post, Claire. And one that many of us will relate to. Valium was the solution when my marriage broke down, and it was to be years before I discovered a better one. Learning who I am - i.e. who I was created to be - via a Myers' Briggs seminar helped me to accept and cope with the periods of depression. It didn't level out the troughs, nor did it illuminate the darkness, but it did give me the sure and certain hope that if God had allowed this suffering, he would also have provided a way out.

    1. Thank you, Mel, that's very kind. Quite a few people I've spoken to have said something similar. They've found one of the keys to surviving depression and anxiety has been in understanding and accepting themselves as 'valid' - both in terms of society, but especially as conceived and beloved of God.