Signs of suicidal tendencies found hidden in dead poets' writings

July 23, 2001

An analysis of the use of certain words may uncover hidden signs of suicidal tendencies in writers of poetry, according to new research.

"Suicidal poets are more detached from others and more preoccupied with themselves," says Shannon Wiltsey Stirman, M.A., of the University of Pennsylvania. "Our research also illustrates how text analysis can reveal characteristics of writing that may be associated with suicide and therefore could be useful in predicting suicide among poets."

Stirman and co-author James W. Pennebaker, Ph.D., of the University of Texas at Austin, note that suicide rates are much higher among poets than among other literary writers and the general population, although most poets do not commit suicide. Many suicidal poets suffer from some form of depressive disorder throughout their lives, however.

The poets who ultimately committed suicide also used more words associated with death than did the non-suicide group.

The study is published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine

Using text-analysis software, researchers compared words used in 156 poems written by nine poets who committed suicide to words used in 135 poems written by nine poets who did not commit suicide.

The suicidal and non-suicidal poets were matched as closely as possible by nationality, era, education and sex. All were American, British, or Russian.

In poems written throughout their careers, the poets who committed suicide used significantly more first-person singular self-references (such as "I," "me" and "my") and fewer first-person plural words than did the non-suicidal poets.

In addition, the suicidal poets tended to decrease their use of communication words (such as "talk," "share" and "listen") over time, while the non-suicidal poets tended to increase their use of such words.

Suicidal poets selected for the study were John Berryman, Hart Crane, Sergei Esenin, Adam L. Gordon, Randall Jarrell, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Sylvia Plath, Sarah Teasdale and Anne Sexton. The were matched to non-suicidal poets including Matthew Arnold, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Joyce Kilmer, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, Osip Mandelstam, Boris Pasternak, Adrienne Rich and Edna St. Vincent Millay.
-end-
The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, National Institutes of Health.

Psychosomatic Medicine is the official bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the American Psychosomatic Society. For information about the journal, contact Joel E. Dimsdale, MD, at (619) 543-5468. For copies of the article, contact the Center for the Advancement of Health at 202-387-2829 or e-mail press@cfah.org.

Contact:
Nancy Neff
512-471-6504
nancy@opa.wwh.utexas.edu

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health http://www.cfah.org. For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, http://www.eurekalert.org/restricted/reporters/journals/cfah/. For information about the Center, call Ira Allen, iallen@cfah.org 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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