May is Mental Health Month, an opportunity to raise awareness of mental illness, and to advocate for better care and education on the issue. While mental illnesses aren’t fatal in and of themselves, those who suffer them are more likely than others to commit suicide. Like the rest of us, writers suffer from mental illness and emotional turmoil, and may be more prone to taking their own lives.
Suicide is a terrible and tragic thing, and we urge any of our readers considering taking their lives to seek help. Call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255, or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Thomas M. Disch
Science fiction writer and poet Thomas M. Disch wrote a series of acclaimed novels, among them Camp Concentration, On Wings of Song, and The Genocides, as well as the much-loved children’s classic, The Brave Little Toaster. As a member of the New Wave of science fiction, Disch, along with fellow writers Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, was part of a vanguard that ushered in an age of challenging, post-modern works of fantastic literature. His last published work was The Word of God. Disch succumbed to a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 2008. He was 68 years-old.
Walter M. Miller
Walter M. Miller wrote many short stories, but only saw one of his novels published in his lifetime: A Canticle for Leibowitz. Set decades after a nuclear war, A Canticle for Leibowitz is story of a Catholic brotherhood’s effort to see a mysterious figure named Leibowitz canonized. It’s a bittersweet tale with a strong, but not particularly optimistic, anti-war message. It came from the heart: Miller was a devout Catholic and a World War II veteran who had seen the worst humanity had to offer. Miller was working on a sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman when he took his own life in 1996. In accordance with his final wishes, it was completed by fellow author Terry Bisson and published the following year. Miller was 72.
Robert E. Howard
Robert E. Howard was the creator of several well known fantasy characters, including Conan the Barbarian. Isolated from his peers, and more or less misunderstood by the other residents of his tiny town in Texas, Howard nonetheless maintained a lively correspondence by mail with many authors who would, like him, go on to become household names: H. P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith, among them. Howard was extremely close to his mother, Hester, who suffered with tuberculosis for most of her life. On June 11, 1936, Hester slipped into a coma from which it was determined she would never awake. Upon hearing the news, Howard shot himself in the head. He died of his wound the next day. He was 30 years-old.
Author Ned Vizzini battled depression for his entire life and was hospitalized at the age of fifteen, an experience that inspired his second novel, It’s Kind of a Funny Story. Other works included Teen Angst? Naaah…, a collection of articles he wrote as a teenager, Be More Chill, a novel about a teenager who receives a brain implant that helps him with being cool, The Other Normals, a novel about a young person who slips into a fantasy world inspired by a role-playing game, and House of Secrets, a fantasy work for young readers co-written with director Chris Columbus. Vizzini was outspoken about his struggles with mental illness throughout his career. Sadly, Vizzini lost his battle in 2013: He jumped from the roof of a Brooklyn building and died at the age of 32.
James Tiptree Jr.
James Tiptree Jr. was the pen name of Alice Bradley Sheldon, a groundbreaking female author whose brilliant short stories and novels earned her accolades from readers and the respect of her peers — many of whom didn’t learn her true identity and gender until decades into her career. Sheldon believed (correctly) that being a woman would be a hindrance in the male-dominated science fiction market, and the Tiptree identity gave her an opportunity that she wouldn’t have had otherwise. In 1987, Sheldon shot her chronically ill husband in his sleep and then herself. She was 71 years-old.
John Polidori was the author of the first published vampire story: “The Vampyre”. The vampire of the tale, Lord Ruthven was inspired by the poet Lord Byron, for whom Polidori provided his services as a physician. “The Vampyre” was written during the same stay on Lake Geneva that produced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and would become the Polidori’s best known work — a signature piece of the Romantic movement in literature. Polidori struggled with depression and a gambling problem for all of his short life, and there’s very strong evidence that his death in 1821 was the result of self-inflicted cyanide poisoning. He was 25 years-old.
Fiction writer, journalist, and political activist Leopold Lugones isn’t as well known in the United States as he was in his native Argentina, and that’s a shame: His short story collection Las fuerzas Extrañas (The Strange Forces) had many admirers, including Jorge Luis Borges, and is considered a landmark work in Latin American speculative fiction. Lugones, like the other authors on this list, suffered from deep depression. He committed suicide by ingesting cyanide in 1938. He was 63 years-old.
H. Beam Piper
H. Beam Piper was a self-educated railroad laborer turned professional author. While Piper wrote many novels, his best known work is probably Little Fuzzy, the first of three novels exploring the world of an alien species that the human race initially considers animals, only to discover their sentience later. Piper was dogged by financial difficulties in his later life, and shot himself in 1964. He was 60 years-old.
Edward Lucas White
High school teacher and writer Edward Lucas White wrote several novels, but is best remembered for his short fiction. “Lukundoo”, the story of a European explorer who incurs the wrath of an African witch doctor, has been anthologized many times, and will likely continue to be. White died by suicide from gas inhalation in 1934, only seven days following the death of his wife. He was 67 years-old.