Mental Health and Writing

As it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, I thought I’d address that most clichéd of subject: mental health and writing.


First, some myths:

  1. Depression makes you more creative.
  2. Depression is a normal part about being a writer.
  3. Writing is a solitary process.
  4. You’re only worth as much as you earn from writing.

All of that is crap. Like all crap, it had to come from somewhere. Let’s address it, briefly.

Depression makes you more creative. The problem here, aside from encouraging people to ignore treatments for their mental illnesses, is that it’s fundamentally untrue. Lots of creative people get depressed, yes. Sometimes, anti-depressants makes people feel like creative, because the chemicals in their brain are changing to the typical levels, yes. The thing about medication for mental illness, though, is that (a) there’s more than one because (b) people react to them differently. And, (c) the placebo effect: people think they’ll lose their creativity when they go on medication, so they do. (Side note: There are a lot of different side effects to medication. They’re all more manageable than trying to stumble through life with a mental illness that will only get worse. If you need to take medication to regulate your brain chemistry, then take it. If it doesn’t suit you, tell your doctor.)

Depression is a normal part about being a writer. Statistics are difficult to come across, but I would take a guess that most writers are not depressed. Many are overwhelmed, anxious, stressed, worried, bored, or disappointed, and many of those things can lead to a depressed state, but there is a difference between feeling depressed and being depressed. One goes away by itself, the other needs taking care of regularly. A depressed writer is a false cliché.

Writing is a solitary process. I used to believe this. Then I joined a writing group, and we wrote around a coffee table. At the same time, I had to learn to write using my phone, while riding the bus. Neither of those scenarios are conducive to writing before I realised that I didn’t have to be in a small room by myself to write anything. That said, I still wear headphones to stop people talking to me while I’m writing, because conversation is distracting.

You’re only worth as much as you earn from writing. Stories have value. Poems have value. A thesis on the evolution of birds in Indonesia has value. None of those values are related to how much money they earn the author. Even if no one else ever reads what you write, the point is that you’ve made something.

So, what should you do to take care of your mental health as a writer?

There are a few things I would recommend. First of all: forget about the idea of mental illness being romantic. You don’t need to be depressed to make something worthwhile. Secondly: stop comparing yourself to other people. That includes, but is not limited to: thinking you’re better than people, thinking you’re worse than people, thinking you have fewer opportunities because you’re a woman, thinking you have fewer opportunities because you’re not a woman, thinking you could get more recognition for being white, and thinking you could be noticed more if you weren’t white.

(This is a real thing I’ve noticed: there are a lot of women-only or POC-only calls for submissions. Why did I notice that? Because those are the calls for submissions that need a signal boost. White men: the next time you think there are no opportunities for you, look at the people in the literary mag on the shelf, or the writers are that conference in your town, or the shelves are your local bookshelf – we’re the norm, and while that’s not a good thing, it should at least serve as a reminder that all the extra opportunities for every but us exist for a reason.)

With all of that in mind, here are ten tips to dealing with mental health as a writer:

  1. Talk to people. Talk about your book. Talk about your day. Talk about whether you feel lonely or sad or apprehensive. And ask people how they are, and what they did since you last saw them.
  2. Don’t stick purely to tea, coffee, or alcohol. Whatever about writing drunk and editing sober, you also need to stay hydrated.
  3. Take breaks. Set a timer for 45 minutes, and leave your desk after that. Pick a day to not write, especially if you fill all your free time with a pen in your or a word processor open.
  4. Meet other authors. Solidarity is a wonderful thing. And remember not to compare your success or lack thereof to other peoples’.
  5. Don’t read the bad reviews. Have someone else do it for you, if you really need to know if it’s warranted, but remember this: most people who give a star rating on a book don’t write something to go with it, and not all those that do have put much thought into their words.
  6. Don’t respond to the bad reviews. No matter how bad.
  7. Don’t respond to trolls on the internet. No matter how much your want to put them straight.
  8. Treat yourself when you do something substantial. Celebrating your victories creates a positive feedback loop in your brain. We’re basically dogs, and the celebration is the bell.
  9. Put away the project that’s causing you grief, especially if you don’t have a deadline. You don’t need to hurt yourself because you believe you have to finish everything you start.
  10. When you ask for feedback, find someone who knows what sort of feedback you need, and what sort of tone is best to take with you. On a related note: seek feedback. You might not like negative feedback, but it could make your writing better, and that, in turn, can make you feel better about yourself. You don’t have to write perfectly every time.

There’s a lot to be said about all of this, but perhaps the last key point to take away is this: just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you’re not also human. You’re allowed to feel poorly, and you’re allowed to take time off.

Everything doesn’t have to be okay, and that’s okay. You’re worth more than your book.


About Paul Carroll

Paul Carroll is a writer, born, raised and still living in Dublin. By day he's a student and bookseller, by night he writes fiction and uses social media.
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