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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsHello.

Skip to 0 minutes and 10 secondsThis week on Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing we're going to look at one of the most difficult and widespread of all mental health problems, depression. And also at the extreme form of it known as bipolar disorder. The statistics worldwide about depression are deeply alarming, and we ought to begin by just reminding everybody out there that all sorts of forms of professional help and counselling are available if you are suffering from depression. Strangely, though, there is a long history of association between creativity and mental illness. The ancient Greeks believed that creative artists were somehow taken over by a kind of madness, a force outside themselves. Mania was the word that they used for it.

Skip to 1 minute and 10 secondsIt's as if something comes upon the poet, the writer, the artist, that they are not in control of. Through history, many great creative artists have suffered with depression, and sometimes with bipolar disorder. Again and again, we find writers committed to mental asylums, whether it was the great poet Christopher Smart in the 18th century or some of the finest American poets of the late 20th century. John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath all spent time in the McLean Hospital for Psychiatric Disorders in Massachusetts. One of my biggest projects as a writer in literary biography was writing the life of the 19th century agricultural labour poet, John Clare. He was born into impoverished circumstances and he suffered depression very badly.

Skip to 2 minutes and 9 secondsAnd yet somehow there were moments of intense creativity that were almost like the opposite of his depression. That's perhaps suggesting that he had what we now call bipolar disorder. There were days when John Clare was so ill that he could not get out of bed, didn't have the will to live. And there were other days of manic energy when he couldn't stop writing. Eventually, his mental instability led his family to commit him to a mental hospital. The treatment there was actually very enlightened, but it was still the case that he suffered enormously mentally. And yet out of that mental suffering grew some of his greatest poetry.

Skip to 2 minutes and 59 secondsThe most famous of all his poems was called 'I Am' and it captures the deep isolation that anybody suffering from depression is bound to feel. 'I Am' by John Clare. 'I am - yet what I am, none cares or knows. My friends forsake me like a memory lost. I am the self-consumer of my woes. They rise and vanish in oblivion's host like shadows in love frenzied, stifled throes. And yet I am and live like vapours tossed. Into the nothingness of scorn and noise, into the living sea of waking dreams, where there is neither sense of life or joys, but the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems.

Skip to 3 minutes and 56 secondsEven the dearest that I love the best are strange, nay stranger than the rest. I long for scenes where man hath never trod. A place where woman never smiled or wept, there to abide with my creator, God, and sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept, untroubling and untroubled where I lie. The grass below - above the vaulted sky'. That's such a powerful poem. It's painful, actually, I think, to read. 'The self-consumer of my woes'. Well, what does he mean when he says that? Well, I suppose the point is it is about the fundamental loneliness of this condition. But guilt, there's guilt there isn't there 'I am a self-consumer of my woes'.

Skip to 4 minutes and 48 secondsAnd don't you think a lot of people feel that with depression, that somehow they feel a sense of shame? Yeah. No, I think there is that, that sense that he is destroying himself through it. But there's nothing that he can do about it. But I think the way that the poem captures depression so effectively is through the sense that everything dissolves into a kind of nothingness. 'The living sea of waking dreams where there is neither sense of life or joys, but the vast shipwreck of my life's esteems'. That sort of sense that when you're suffering from depression, whatever thoughts you have just go back into negativity, and nobody can help you with this.

Skip to 5 minutes and 32 secondsSo it's a very, very painful thing that even the dearest, the people he loved the best, seem like strangers, seem like outsiders. Indeed, they seem stranger than the rest, he says. It's as if this awful sense of isolation makes it even more painful to have loved ones around him. And I think for people living with loved ones who are in a depression, this is a particularly painful thing. They try to reach out and they seem to be rebuffed. But the person who's suffering can't help the rebuff. But the point about having the poem is you don't feel alone.

Skip to 6 minutes and 12 secondsAnd if you haven't experienced depression, but somebody that you love has, just reading that poem I think can help to bring you closer to what it might feel. I think that's absolutely right. And in that sense... All of those feelings, the sense of shame, the sense of losing one's identity, you feel like it's crumbling. His whole identity is a 'shipwreck' and nobody grows up thinking their lives are going to be terrible and a shipwreck. You know, we all start off as children probably quite positive. And so we don't know at the beginning of our lives how things are going to transpire. And I think it captures something very beautiful about that sense of the loss of himself.

Skip to 6 minutes and 56 secondsIt's almost like he's breaking down in the poem. Yeah. It is. But he's wanting to recapture that sense of hope that came, and innocence that came in childhood. What I was going to say was that what is interesting is that there was a man called William Knight who was the superintendent of the lunatic asylum where Clare wrote this. And he wrote down Clare's poems, and then arranged for some of them to be published. And there's a sense in which I think he, he was performing a great service there.

Skip to 7 minutes and 22 secondsHe saw that Clare's extraordinarily intense poetic record of the experience that was being felt by so many people in the asylum, that this was something worth preserving, worth sharing, precisely because it might help others who were going through the same experience. It's fascinating what you say about William Knight. Do you think it was a sort of occupational therapy for the 19th century, what he did in getting Clare to write, or himself writing down the poems, getting them published? Well, I think it was. I mean, the fascinating thing about the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum where Clare was confined for the last 23 years of his life was that it was a remarkably liberal regime.

Skip to 8 minutes and 5 secondsI remember when I was researching my biography of Clare, reading the annual reports from the asylum inspectors. And the only criticism that they had of the asylum was that there weren't enough books in the library and that pets were not available in every single ward. They had this idea that stroking a cat or listening to the song of a caged bird would be a form of therapy. It was, in a way, a remarkably holistic regime. Clare himself, until his last years when he became physically very ill, was actually allowed to wander into Northampton. And indeed, he would sometimes sit in the church porch writing. But I think that idea of a writing cure is genuine.

Skip to 8 minutes and 50 secondsAnd that's so progressive and enlightened and we now know that stroking pets can help with depression and reading poetry, occupational therapy. So what do you think he would... what would happen if Clare went to his GP today or came to see you or spoke to you about his depression? What do you think we would... how would we deal with John Clare today? Well, I think that's an interesting question. Because of course, the one form of therapy that was not available in the lunatic asylums in the 19th century and health care generally in the 19th century was modern medication.

Skip to 9 minutes and 21 secondsIt does seem that Clare, with this rapid shift from manic energy to utter depression and desolation, was what we now call bipolar. Nowadays, the usual form of treatment for bipolar would be a drug like lithium, which evens out the ups and the downs. But lithium also has the effect of sort of dampening the sensibilities. And that, I think, creates a very interesting paradox. If Clare had been prescribed lithium, he would have perhaps had a much calmer, in some senses, happier life. But perhaps he wouldn't have written poetry, because it was only in the manic phase that he wrote. I think that's really fascinating to think about how we might treat John Clare today for his bipolar and depression.

Skip to 10 minutes and 13 secondsBut I want to know more about depression, so I went along to speak to Dr Andrew Schuman to talk about the modern understanding of depression.

Welcome to Week 5: Depression and bipolar

This week, we’ll be thinking about two related conditions: depression and bipolar disorder.

Depression is a serious and widespread condition, and while awareness is improving all the time, there is much progress still to be made in terms of removing the stigma associated with depression, and making different forms of support and treatment more widely available. We’d like to begin by reminding everyone that a number of websites and counselling services do exist, should you feel that you are in need of help; we are including links to some of these at the bottom of the page. We would also encourage you to speak to a GP or counsellor, who will be able to offer you professional support.

There is a long history of association between depression and creativity. Together, we’ll be looking at some of the works of writers who are known to have struggled with mental health problems, and at how they have conveyed or grappled with these problems through their writing. We begin with a poem by the 19th century poet John Clare, entitled ‘I Am’:

I Am

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live—like vapours tossed

Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life’s esteems;
Even the dearest that I loved the best
Are strange—nay, rather, stranger than the rest.

I long for scenes where man hath never trod
A place where woman never smiled or wept
There to abide with my Creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie
The grass below—above the vaulted sky.

John Clare (1793–1864)

We’ll be thinking about how poems like Clare’s might be of comfort, both to people who are suffering from depression, and to friends and family trying to gain some insight into what this condition might feel like. Clare’s poem captures the intense isolation, and the loss of self so often experienced as a result of depression, but in doing so, it may help others to realise that they are not alone.


Throughout the course we will be addressing some sensitive and potentially upsetting topics. We encourage all of you to exercise your own judgement, and to skip any material that you think may be distressing rather than helpful for you. Please also remember to be considerate of your fellow learners in the discussion areas, both when commenting and when responding to comments made by others.

If you are experiencing any of the conditions that we discuss during the course, or if you feel that you are in need of help, you should speak to a medical practitioner or counsellor, who will be able to offer professional support. You can also seek help from charities and care organisations such as the Samaritans. We’ve included a link to their website at the bottom of the page.


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This video is from the free online course:

Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing

The University of Warwick

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