BACKGROUND An earlier study of 291 world famous men had shown that only visual artists and creative writers were characterised, in comparison with the general population, by a much higher prevalence of pathological personality traits and alcoholism. Depressive disorders, but not any other psychiatric conditions, had afflicted writers almost twice as often as men with other high creative achievements. The present investigation was undertaken to confirm these findings in a larger and more comprehensive series of writers, and to discover causal factors for confirmed high prevalences of affective conditions and alcoholism in writers.
METHOD Data were collected from post-mortem biographies and, where applicable, translated into DSM diagnoses. The frequencies of various abnormalities and deviations were compared between poets, prose fiction writers, and playwrights.
RESULTS A high prevalence in writers of affective conditions and of alcoholism was confirmed. That of bipolar affective psychoses exceeded population norms in poets, who in spite of this had a lower prevalence of all kinds of affective disorders, of alcoholism, of personality deviations, and related to this, of psychosexual and marital problems, than prose fiction and play writers.
CONCLUSIONS A hypothesis is developed, which links the greater frequency of affective illnesses and alcoholism in playwrights and prose writers, in comparison with poets, to differences in the nature and intensity of their emotional imagination. This hypothesis could be tested by clinical psychologists collaborating with experts in literature on random samples of different kinds of writers.