Suicidal Risk in Lives of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath

By Kodrlová, Ida | PSYART, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Suicidal Risk in Lives of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath


Kodrlová, Ida, PSYART


Both Woolf and Plath experienced depression during their life and were hospitalized in mental institutions, but still there is a lot of similar as well as different risk and protective factors in their lives forming the individual course of a suicidal process that led them both to the same final choice of the voluntary death at the age of 30 in case of Plath and at the age of 59 in case of Woolf. Literary works of these authors are not taken into consideration in this paper, the attempt is to look into the biographical data trying to track and compare risk and protective factors for suicide in lives of these two creative women.

keywords: biopsychosocial, environmental and sociocultural factors for suicide, creative process

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_kodrlova01.shtml

The study was supported by the Grant Agency of Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic under the project title Life Story and the Artwork, code number IAA 7025402. The author would like to thank Ivo Cermák and Pavel Machotka for the helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.

1. Introduction

In this paper, I would like to describe similarities and differences in the lives of Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath-the two authors who committed suicide and who never stopped to fascinate their readers, critics, biographers and other people who have studied their art and lives. Woolf and Plath both experienced depression during their lives and were hospitalized in mental institutions, but still there is a lot of different risk and protective factors in their lives co-forming the individual course of the suicidal process that led them both to the same final choice of the voluntary death at the age of 30 in case of Plath and at the age of 59 in case of Woolf. Literary works and inner conflicts of these authors are not taken into consideration in this paper, the attempt is to look into the biographical data trying to track and compare risk and protective factors for suicide in lives of these two creative women.

According to many authors (e.g. Dally, 1999), Virginia Woolf suffered from bipolar disorder. According to Jamison (1993), this disorder - together with depression - accounts for at least three-fourths of all suicides. On the other hand, one of the symptoms of borderline personality disorder, which was most probably the disorder that would be diagnosed today in case of Sylvia Plath, is the chronic suicidality. One in ten patients with borderline personality disorder can be expected to complete suicide, which is a rate similar to the patients with major mood disorders (Paris, 2002). If judging according to their diagnosis, we might say that both Plath and Woolf were in a similar suicide risks. Still, Woolf lived till her 59th year and Plath only till her 30th. How come? We might say that Sylvia Plath most probably had experienced two major depressive episodes in 1953 and in 1962/1963 and the combination of the borderline disorder with depression made her more vulnerable. On the other hand, there were a lot of other risk factors for suicide present in the life of Virginia Woolf. In this paper I try to examine these factors in an attempt to describe the vulnerability of these two distinguished authors in an attempt to estimate the suicidal risk that brought them to their premature deaths.

I have used a description of the risk and protective factors for suicide as described by the Suicide Prevention Resource Centre to organize the structure of my biographical research.

2. Protective Factors for Suicide

First two protective factors for suicide are "Effective clinical care for mental, physical and substance use disorders" and "Easy access to a variety of clinical interventions and support for helpseeking". From the perspective of our time, the clinical care provided to Woolf and Plath would be most probably considered as inefficient, but from the perspective of the first half of the last century and the 1950s, it might have been perfectly appropriate. …

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