Finding Method in the Madness: Social Causation Theory and Mental Illness in the Writing Profession
Ernest Hemingway famously said, “There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed” (Knott 17). Hemingway, like so many writers before him, recognized the role that his mental anguish played in his ability to develop original and creative stories. It is widely acknowledged in the field of psychology that creative writers are far more likely to be diagnosed with mental illnesses than the general population, and there are countless studies from a variety of disciplines offering new theories to explain the observation. Much of the scholarship has focused on the link between creativity and mental illness, using biological and biocritical approaches to explain why writers tend to be mentally ill. However, many of the studies from these approaches have been heavily criticized for their small sample sizes and lack of objectivity in diagnosing participants. Furthermore, as Simon Kyaga briefly points out in his study of the correlation between mental illness and creative occupations, there are sociological explanations that have not been considered by these other researchers (89).
In my paper, I plan to explain how sociological factors could be impacting the high rate of mental illness among creative writers, focusing on the role that social causation theory may play in the correlation. Social causation theory is the idea that people who work in low income, high stress professions are more likely to suffer from mental illness than those in higher economic classes. Because writers, particularly creative writers, often lack economic security due to their career choice, the group is more at risk for mental illness than the average person, according to social causation theory. I will begin by explaining the history of and evidence for social causation theory, followed by an explanation of how social causation theory may impact the professional writing community. Finally, I will demonstrate how social causation theory may have affected three of the most influential studies on mental illness among writers without the authors taking it into account, potentially causing an inflated correlation between creativity and mental illness. In this draft, I will give an explanation of social causation theory and its development and briefly describe my plan for the rest of the paper.
- Explanation of Social Causation Theory
It is generally accepted in the fields of psychology and sociology that people in lower socioeconomic classes are far more likely to suffer from mental illness than those in middle and upper classes. However, there are competing theories as to why this inverse relationship occurs, the two main theories being social drift theory and social causation theory. According to social drift theory, people experience a negative shift in economic status as a result of the onset of mental illness. The landmark study that first introduced social drift theory was E.M. Goldberg and S.L. Morrison’s 1963 documentary study of 706 schizophrenics, aged twenty to thirty-four, that had been admitted to mental hospitals in England and Wales. By comparing the social class in which the men had been born (based on information about their father’s occupation at the time of their birth) to the level of skill required for their profession immediately before they entered the hospital, Goldberg and Morrison found that approximately half of the men who were born into upper class families and had access to education beyond high school worked in unskilled positions as adults (786-793). Based on this data, the authors theorized that some aspect of mental illness caused the men to achieve positions far below what would be expected based on their class background and level of opportunity (Goldberg and Morrison 794). However, it should be considered when looking at the Goldberg and Morrison study that their results were not tested against a control group, so it is impossible to know how often the rate of social drift for young schizophrenics compares to the rate for mentally healthy young men of a similar age and social class.
This study sparked interest in the concept of social drift in the field of sociology, and other researchers attempted to replicate the study’s result in different populations, confirming the findings of Goldberg and Morrison (Birtchnell, Langner and Michael, Turner and Wagenfeld). Social drift theory continued to be a popular explanation for the high rate of poverty among the mentally ill until the early 1990s after John W. Fox published an analysis of some potential issues with the assumptions and methods used in these prior studies, applying new statistical methods of social mobility analysis to their data. The major assumption in the previous studies with which Fox takes issue is that social inheritance is uniform when in actuality, the degree to which our social background affects our ability to achieve economic success is largely based on our origins (349-350). In his study, Fox analyzed the social mobility models used in the control groups for many of the prior studies and found that they are inconsistent with accepted models for the general population and are therefore statistically inaccurate (349). After Fox’s study was published and as more research was conducted on the topic, the scholarship largely abandoned social drift theory and began to focus on social causation theory.
Social causation theory was first observed in a study conducted by Faris and Dunham in Chicago that investigated the prevalence of mental illness within large cities, specifically Chicago, in 1939. The authors plotted the former residences of people who were admitted to mental hospitals in the Chicago area and found that far more of the patients came from the most urban, central parts of the city that had significant social and economic issues such as high rates of crime, juvenile delinquency, and unemployment. Faris and Dunham conjectured that the high stress of living in a socially and economically unstable environment leads to a higher risk of mental health problems (xi). This assertion has been supported by decades of research, including a study by William B. Eaton et al. of 907 people living in Baltimore, Maryland in the early 1980s who were asked to fill out baseline questionnaires on their socioeconomic status and mental health and then given questionnaires two years later. Socioeconomic status was measured based on each participant’s educational attainment, personal and household income, and value of assets, and mental health was assessed using a survey endorsed by the American Psychiatric Association (Eaten et al. 6-8). The study looked at how the participants’ socioeconomic status and mental health changed over time and found that the presence of major and manic depression has very little impact on social mobility, suggesting that social drift did not apply in this population. On the other hand, the presence of depression after the two years was highly negatively correlated with participants’ socioeconomic status, providing strong evidence for social causation theory. It is also worth noting that the psychological demand of a person’s profession was correlated with higher rates of depression with an increase in each unit of psychological demand the study used resulting in a 25 percent increase in the probability of having depression. Additionally, physical demand and hazardous work conditions did not have statistically significant effects on the rate of depression (Eaton et al. 9-11).
John Mirowksy and Catherine Ross published a book, Social Causes of Psychological Distress, in 1989 that further interpreted the results of studies like those by Eaton et al. and Faris and Dunham by looking at specific aspects of the stress that come with low socioeconomic status. Compiling and analyzing four comprehensive studies on the link between mental illness and social status, Mirowsky and Ross found that there is social status and mental disorders are closely linked (77). In their individual analysis of a study called the Illinois Survey of Well-Being, the authors looked at social characteristics like gender, income, education, and level of person control over circumstances to divide the sample population into two groups they felt represented those with the “best” and “worst” conditions. According to their study, “(I)f we split society into two halves, better and worse, the worse half of society has 83 percent of all severe stress … Stated another way, the odds of being severely stressed is 5.9 times greater in the worse half than in the better half” (Mirowsky and Ross 176). They argued that while the inability to support oneself or one’s family is a significant stressor, the largest contributor to the “causal mechanism for psychological distress” is a lack of control over one’s career and life circumstances (Mirowsky and Ross 253). This notion is particularly relevant to the creative writing community due to the lack of control that writers must feel over their economic status due to the fact that their income is highly dependent on factors that are largely outside of their control such as the demand for their work in publishing houses or how well their work sells in the consumer market. Furthermore, the necessity for authors to create marketable art likely makes artists feel as though they do not have total control over their work.
There are strong arguments for both social drift theory and social causation theory and both likely affect the mental health of those working in the writing profession, but the empirical support for social causation theory is much stronger than that for social drift theory, which is why I have chosen to focus my analysis on just social causation. As Kyaga suggests when describing potential faults with his study on mental illness and creativity in the professional writing population, social drift theory could be impacting writers because people with serious mental illnesses are often unable to work in a traditional work environment (89). As a result, they may be attracted to self-employment in creative fields, which would cause there to be an abnormally high rate of mental illness among creative writers. While I believe this is a valid theory that is certainly playing a role in the prevalence of mental illness in writing profession, there is more evidence to suggest that social causation theory is at work. As I will demonstrate in the next section of this paper, a high percentage of writers live below the poverty line and have unstable income due to the nature of their work, which could be leading them to experience high levels of stress and increasing their risk of becoming mentally ill.
In the next section of my paper, I will discuss how social causation theory can be applied to creative writers and poets. I will use statistics to support my assertion that writers suffer from economic hardship and instability including a recently published study by the Author’s Guild, which found that the average income from writing-related activities for an American author is $8,000, thirty percent less than in 2009 when a survey was last conducted, and more than half of American authors live below the poverty line (“The Wages of Writing”). Furthermore, the best-selling poetry books of 2011, the most popular book earned the author approximately $44,177, while the second and third earned $4,377 and $5,625 respectively (Friedman). With this level of income from writing, authors often have to turn to alternative jobs they may not enjoy such as teaching or non-academic positions to earn supplemental income, which may contribute to a lack of satisfaction. I will also discuss how developments in technology, an increase in piracy, and the commercialization of literature have contributed to the lack of profitability for authors.
For the final section of the paper, I plan to outline three of the most influential studies on creativity and mental illness among writers, likely those by Ludwig, Kaufman, and Kyaga, and then explain how social causation may have contributed to the high rate of correlation found in the studies. Ultimately, I hope to contribute to the discussion by furthering our understanding of why writers suffer from mental illness at a much higher rate than the general population, but also by raising questions about the commercialization of art and the way society perceives the value of the modern artist.
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