Among the latest news, one topic that has particularly stood out recently is that of mental illness and drug addiction. In the last few years, there have been outcries on the behalf of those who are victims of these conditions, enhanced by the lack of support and awareness.
The latest culmination of the taboo topic erupted after the sudden death of Mac Miller, a rapper whose music openly dealt with these themes. Miller had been a spokesman about addiction. His fatal overdose is currently in the process of forever shaking up the way in which we approach mental health. The world is starting to accept these conditions for what they really are and encouraging those facing the same difficulties to come forward.
With this new light being cast upon the way we view mental health, it is interesting to look at its evolution in the last 100 years. Recently, Peter Steinberg and Karen Kukil put together The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II: 1956-1963, in which we are offered brilliant insight into the life of one of the most prolific and tortured writers of the 20th century. Through her correspondence, notably with her mother, we see her valiant hiding of her true state of mind, only casually referring to her depression as feeling ‘rather blue’. Plath hides the reality of the demons that haunted her through almost all her correspondences, only speaking openly in her letters to her psychiatrist Dr. Ruth Beuscher, where she shares details of the disintegration of her marriage as well as her anxieties as a wife, a woman and a writer.
One of the most prominent myths circulating about mental health, and by extension drug addiction, is that it is a sign of weakness. Plath is a firm example that this is not the case. Throughout her correspondence, she proves herself to be one of the most ambitious and successful female writers of her time, despite her deep-rooted anxieties. She was the key figure responsible for projecting Ted Hughes into the limelight, firmly believing that his poetry was ‘the most rich, powerful work since Yeats and Dylan Thomas’. She assumed the role as his secretary and supported him financially while he flourished as a writer. Meanwhile, she also undertook the task of creating a home, as well as continuing with her own writing and her studies at Cambridge. In order to balance both her marriage and her scholarship (as married women then were solely expected to keep the household), Plath had to fight ‘before a jury of intellectual nuns’ against the oppressive ‘ingrained English maxim that a woman cannot cook and think at the same time’. Her victory against these prejudices and the fervour with which she accomplished all her endeavours shows the extent of her strength of character, which in no way was weakened by her mental health.
Another myth Plath dispels is that her illness has to do with willpower. Her courageous approach to life was restricted by the fact that her condition was misunderstood. She was particularly keen to shield her mother from the truth, initially publishing her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas – a disguise she had wished to maintain until Aurelia Plath’s death. With unfortunate timing, Plath was devastated that Hughes’ infidelity was confirmed during her mother’s visit from the States, revealing a side of herself she was precariously trying to contain. However, she was not against getting help and underwent various forms of treatment, including the controversial and questionable electroconvulsive therapy. The common misconception that people facing these struggles are in any way showing traits of selfishness or lack of morals is a factor that led Plath to bridle her true self and pour her emotions out through powerful, disturbing and poignant poetry – an outlet that changed the course of literary history.
Sadly, there are certain aspects of Plath’s illness that she never knew could be disproved. One of these is that mental health problems aren’t necessarily forever, especially when receiving the right aid. The misconception and misrepresentations of mental health and addiction are slowly being woven out of society. This past July, the states of New York and Virginia incorporated mental health education into their school systems. Although there is still much stigma to dispel, we can see measures being taken to help people who face struggles as Sylvia Plath and Mac Miller did, showing huge progress as society’s approach to mental health takes a step in the right direction.