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The Sylvia Plath Effect: Mental Illness in Eminent Creative Writers

Mental Illness

The Sylvia Plath Effect: Mental Illness in Eminent Creative Writers

The confessional poet Sylvia Plath, born in the United States in 1932, undoubtedly had a fascinating life and work. Here is The Sylvia Plath Effect what you should know about creative writing and mental health.


  • Sylvia Plath is an exemplary student, prolific writer.
  • Studies that support the relationship between creativity and mental health.
  • There has been criticisms from journalists about Sylvia Plath effect statements

Sylvia Plath is an exemplary student, prolific writer, and Pulitzer Prize winner; Her image has become such an icon in the fight against depressive disorders that she has even given her name to a psychological theory: the Sylvia Plath effect.

It was proposed and named by the American psychologist James C. Kaufman, who conducted two studies searching for disruptive signs of the mind. In them, he analyzed more than 2,000 male and female novelists, poets, playwrights, and politicians, visual artists, and actresses.

The writers in the sample, especially women who wrote poetry, experienced a significant tendency to suffer from mental disorders.

In addition to this research, a few others address the possible connections between creative expression and mental health. Below are some of the most recognized arguments, both for and against the effect raised.

Studies That Support The Relationship Between Creativity And Mental Health

Psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison addressed the same issue in her book Marked with Fire. Manic-depressive illness and artistic temperament, originally published in English in 1993. Within the text, the author established a possible relationship between creativity and psychological diagnosis. This was achieved by analyzing the biological bases of manic-depressive illness, applied to the lives and works of prominent artists such as Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf.

Mental Illness

It was emphasized that most people suffering from a manic-depressive illness do not possess an extraordinary imagination, just as most artists do not suffer from such an illness. However, data were presented to argue that many recognized artists met the diagnostic requirements for depression; more than could be attributed to mere probability.

Another study that operated along the same lines of the Sylvia Plath effect was carried out by Arnold M. Ludwig, a psychiatrist. In 1998, he revisited a 1995 analysis of himself, in which he had studied initially 1,004 eminent people from 18 different professions, including artists, scientists, and politicians. The study revolved around the relationships between success and mental health. During the review, Ludwig added 137 renowned artists to the show.

He concluded that the ratio between creative expression and mental health prevails beyond the size of a sample. Similarly, he assured that mental disorders have a strong relationship with particular forms of creative expression.

Criticisms Of The Sylvia Plath Effect Statements

More recently, vital questions have been made to what was initially established by James C. Kaufman. Silvia Hernando, by journalists. The mentioned that the disturbed artist’s idea might be a wrong notion fueled by assumptions or ignorance. Although he did not dismiss Kaufman’s studies and presented them as a possible theory, he stressed that they still need further development.

On the other hand, Rebeca Leal Singer, writer and student of the Master of Literary Creation at The New York School, was much more interested. In an article published in 2019 in the magazine Nexos, he described the theory as “harmful.” According to her, it was a sexist phenomenon whose arrival in popular culture was detrimental to the people’s merit in the sample.

Even Kaufman himself, the author of the Sylvia Plath effect, wrote an editorial letter in 2012 in Europe’s Journal of Psychology. In it, he reflected on his career and his discoveries. He admitted that his work had been dangerously misunderstood over the years, in addition to being partially to blame for a romanticization of mental illness.

The Effect, Scientific Reality, or Wrong Idea?

It is interesting to analyze the connection between creativity and mental health. Not simply to satisfy human curiosity, but because this analysis can lead to new creative processes. In the same way, it could generate a more comprehensive and realistic vision of the writer as a human being and as a member of society. It is necessary to go beyond the stereotypes that only allow two opposites: genius and crazy.

Like many other ideas that might be opposed, the ideas presented here make up theories, not laws. Although the data collected in various investigations are consistent and support the conclusions, the Sylvia Plath effect is only possible. It may not be the best or the most holistic, but it is one of the most popular.