What is it like to suffer from a Bipolar Illness? This lady
talks frankly to Dr Raj Persaud about the reality as opposed to
what is widely believed.
A related article which may be of interest first published in
The Huffington Post:
Does Fame Make You More Suicidal?
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
Stephen Fry has revealed that he recently made a serious suicide
attempt. He has gone public with the shocking disclosure,
apparently in an attempt to de-stigmatise mental
Fry is a patron and supporter of mental health charities and has
previously disclosed suffering from manic-depression, or mood
swings, now termed bipolar disorder.
He is extremely successful in many different areas of life; a
'national treasure'. How can someone popular, wealthy, busy and
successful, end up feeling hopeless and despairing?
Yet it's well established from psychological research that there is
a link between fame and suicide.
David Lester, a professor of psychology at the Richard Stockton
College of New Jersey, has conducted much research establishing
this link. In the journal 'Perceptual and Motor Skills' he
published a review of research entitled 'Suicide in Eminent
Persons'. He cited various surveys establishing an average suicide
rate in the well-known of around 3%, considerably higher than in
the general population. One study focusing on eminent people from
the 20th Century found a suicide rate of 5%, hundreds of times
higher than the suicide rate in the UK's general
Why are the famous so prone to suicide?
Perhaps being famous, or becoming well-known, might be
However, psychological thinking is swinging towards a new idea -
there could be an aspect of personality which drives particular
people to become eminent, which is the very same factor that also
elevates chances of suicide.
For example, psychologists Sheri Johnson, Charles Carver and Ian
Gotlib have just published a study which has found that people with
bipolar disorder (the same diagnosis as reportedly given to Stephen
Fry) had higher ambitions for popular fame. Bipolar disorder has
been found to be over-represented amongst the creative and the
famous, especially those from artistic fields.
These researchers, based at Stanford University, University of
California and the University of Miami, used a scale termed
'Willingly Approached Set of Statistically Unlikely Pursuits',
which measures desire for extremely ambitious (difficult to
achieve) life goals, such as becoming the focus of books and TV
shows. Goals of great recognition, such as achieving fame,
multi-millionaire rank, or political influence, were much more
likely to be found in those with Bipolar Disorder.
This study, 'Elevated Ambitions for Fame Among Persons Diagnosed
With Bipolar I Disorder', published in the 'Journal of Abnormal
Psychology', suggests the drive to achieve difficult ambitions
arises partly from this diagnosis.
But does this also explain propensity to suicide?
Of all the various talents Stephen Fry displays, perhaps the most
pertinent to the recent suicide attempt may come as a surprise.
See his recently published The
Ode Less Travelled - Unlocking the Poet Within. The attached
publicity for the book confirms that he has 'written long poems,
for his own private pleasure'. The book 'invites you to discover
the incomparable delights of metre, rhyme and verse forms'.
Particularly high rates of suicide and bipolar illness have been
found in poets. Some psychologists even contend that writing poetry
may not be good for your mental health, particularly if you suffer
certain predisposing mental vulnerabilities.
In a study entitled 'Word Use in the Poetry of Suicidal and
Non-suicidal Poets', psychologists Shannon Stirman and James
Pennebaker, from the University of Pennsylvania and University of
Texas, point out some psychologists believe Sylvia Plath's poetry
may have undermined her coping skills, which in the face of highly
stressful life events, possibly contributed to her death through
Yet writing, particularly poetry, is seen in some circles as a
'release' and therefore therapeutic.
Stirman and Pennebaker probed further. They analysed the words in
the poems of suicidal poets, investigating a theory that it might
be possible to predict which poet is going to kill themselves, from
the word choice in their poetry.
These psychologists analysed a total of 156 poems by eminent poets
who committed suicide, and compared them with equally famous poets
who did not.
Overall, the suicidal group of poets used more first-person
singular (I, me, my) words in their poetry than did the control
group. Suicidal poets also used the words 'we', 'us', and 'our'
more in the early and middle phases of their career, than did the
non-suicidal group. The percentage of use dropped sharply below
that of the non-suicide group, during the late periods of their
career (ie just before the suicide).
The authors of this study, published in the journal 'Psychosomatic
Medicine', suggest that the finding of more first-person singular
self-references ('I', 'me', 'my') in their poetry throughout their
careers, means that self-references do not increase over time in
the suicidal poets. Stirman and Pennebaker contend this means that
the suicidal poets' level of preoccupation with self is not due to
increasing levels of fame or recognition of their work over
Self-reference could be a measure of self-obsession. Maybe getting
a lot of attention makes you self-obsessed - or could it be that
being self-preoccupied leads you to consider becoming famous?
Certainly this self-centredness doesn't appear good for you, if
it's linked with suicide propensity.
Stirman and Pennebaker further wonder if their pattern of findings
suggest there could even be a kind of 'suicide fingerprint', in
patterns of word usage by those who are predisposed to suicide, or
becoming more suicidal.
It's perhaps even possible such a 'write fingerprint' might show up
in non-poets writings, as in text messages and emails.
However, their main finding is that this 'suicide fingerprint',
appears present from the beginning of a poet's career. In other
words, suicide and fame might be connected through psychological
characteristics present in the personality from the beginning.
The latest evidence is psychological disturbance might drive desire
for fame, and this could lie behind the high rates of suicide in
Raj Persaud is joint podcast editor for the Royal College of
Psychiatrists and also now has a free app on iTunes and google play
store entitled 'Raj Persaud in conversation',
which includes a lot of free information on the latest research
findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from
around the world.