Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The recent death of poet Sarah Hannah

The recent death of poet Sarah Hannah has sparked a discussion on WOMPO about manic-depression and Kay Redfield Jamison. Did Sarah Hannah have depression or manic-depression? In emails, written by her personal friends, her divorce was the cause of her suicide.

It was not until I read Andrew Solomon's book, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, that I knew that not all suicide is the result of depression. Statistics about depression at the United Nations website ( reveal that worldwide, there are 1 million suicides per year. For each suicide, there are 20 to 50 attempts. Mental and neurological causes figure 90 per cent of the time. In another article at the same website, mental illness provoked only 60 per cent of the suicides. Economic crisis is the first cause of suicide even where there is mental illness. Depression is the fourth most urgent health care crisis worldwide, projected to become second most. Heart disease is the first. Suicide claims more lives than homicide and war combined. Of course -- and this bears repeating -- the vast majority of people live in health, without illness.

. . .

Sylvia Plath was a highly achieved younger woman poet, whose major contribution in poetry, though obvious, still goes quietly unremarked by most observers. Anne Sexton was also musician. Virginia Woolf was a lively older woman when she died at 59, a pacifist who wrote a dozen books or so and whose other writings amplified her contribution to near 40 volumes. Her novels, reviews, diary, and letters are uplifting, gently humorous, and delighting.

. . .

I appreciate the comment that the right-wing and left-wing critics of treatments for depression jeopardize health care for sufferers.


I have a bipolar diagnosis, treated since 1991, when I had a writing-related break-down at school. I was achieving at short story, but as we were expected to write novels, instead I wrote a kind of tome, that dealt in aspects of religion and literature and personal story, anti-war in its sentiments, and that criticized abuse of women -- ugly except that it was also rather lyrical in many places. I did not disseminate my ms. In fact, to this day, I have never copied or scanned it, even once. I feared that it had been rifled or read without authorization, and as it was a rough draft that ranged from sublime to putrid, those fears of my environment led to breakdown and diagnosis. I was allowed to recover my footing and finish my degree but never fully regained employment. That I have somehow attracted two rich men's marriage proposals (I have been nearly forced to avoid people in general and rich people for being rich), has not changed my dire financial situation in any genuine way.

Our field does not create employment.

. . .

Depression and manic-depression are chronic ailments, the treatment of which depends largely on the people one knows, their attitudes and beliefs, including their religious beliefs and their beliefs about medicine. It does not depend solely on the sufferer's efforts, as I have personally learned. Recovery needs to take place among other humane people and cannot be achieved in the presence of nihilists. Kay Jamison does give short shrift to social causes of the illness in favor of biochemical arguments, not proved by lab tests. There are not yet tests for major depression, manic-depression, or schizophrenia.

I have been following protocol, without the chance of full recovery -- offered to some, and no doctor has tested my DNA. I have read that there are genetic indicators for these illnesses, but the research of them -- rumored -- must be being conducted without the participants' knowledge. That kind of realization alone leads to paranoia for which more drugs (anti-psychotics) in beta-testing are proffered -- is there little interest in helping the afflicted, more in studying them and in patents? Those who take medication are accused of being drug addicts by the left, and of being heathens by the right.

. . .

I have never physically attempted suicide myself, but I find that it is sometimes what I think about (I daydream of a gentle way on my own terms, not violent and not by overdose) despite my willingness to seek treatment and my ensuring that I have insurance to pay for it. It is encouraging that there are women on WOMPO who are willing to mention that they have the disorder. Since depression is potentially such a serious health problem, it is for the afflicted to get together and perhaps help each other, before it is too late. (Sudden suicide seems almost best, if lifelong chronic suffering is all there is to look forward to besides living in poverty among corrupt and uncaring people. The doctor says a study shows that anxiety triggers suicide; the depressed desire not to live in addiction & anxiety.)

I was never someone who shunned others and was very even-handed and a fair-minded teacher.

I worry much about papers -- my own and others'. My sister (who is 40) wants mine disposed of; my mother defends keeping the papers but not the bank records that show my micro-responsibility for details. I have thought of donating them (volumes of letters -- many of them hopeful) to a medical library. (Suggestions.) I have written an unpublished (except singly) volume of short stories and likely the equivalent of a volume of poems. If I go on, I hope there can be more of it. I am proudest of that work, the creative.

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