Monday, December 18, 2006

TO READ: Great Books on Depression and Other Mental Illnesses
I've just finished reading a couple of terrific books on mental illness issues and want to pass my thoughts on, while hoping you'll let me know of other new ones or old favorites.

The Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression (edited by Nell Casey with an introduction by Kay Redfield Jamison; 2001, Perennial) is titled for a phrase poet Jane Kenyon used to describe her deep depression in Having It Out with Melancholy. Though it's not brand new, it was new to me when I picked it up recently, and I've found it fascinating. The book is a collection of essays by noted writers who have dealt with the illness, either personally, or as a spouse or family member.

While these writers seek to describe what many of us find indescribable about our experiences, they also tell their own very engaging stories of despair. Some of them relate these periods to their ideas about their own creative work, wishing that depression should be abolished if that were possible, or arguing that the illness is actually useful.

The Creating Brain: The Neuroscience of Genius (by Nancy C. Andreasen; 2005, Dana Press) was an exciting read for me as a biologist and as one deeply intrigued with the relationship of mental illness to creativity. In addition to considering what constitutes creativity and how the brain creates, among other issues, it includes a full chapter on Genius and Insanity: Creativity and Brain Disease. Many of you will also be quickly drawn in, I suspect.

Building on long-reported connections, Andreasen's careful study of writers reveals a dramatically higher rate of all mood disorders (80%) than in a carefully matched set of non-writers (30%). No writers in this study had schizophrenia. She is now studying whether scientists, or their family members, have higher rates of schizophrenia. She reports that during periods of instability, poets and painters are generally unable to create, but that during remissions they can draw upon these difficult experiences in their work. Also discussed is the fear of some writers and artists that psychiatric treatment of any kind might stifle their creativity.

Both of these books offer unique, valuable and very interesting takes on illnesses that are being written about more and more, but not always with new insights. What are you reading?

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