Poets on Prozac is the short title of a book by
psychiatrist-poet Richard M. Berlin, MD. The full title is: Poets
on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment, and the Creative Process.
Berlin was an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of
Massachusetts Medical School; now he’s in private practice, and a
Senior Affiliate at U Mass. And a writer. His personal
website is here.
A sample of his work is here;
After Reading Music From Apartment 8
for John Stone, MD
When I started out in medicine,
before I married and before
I had written a single poem,
I read your poetry like a hiker
on a treacherous trail who finally
stops to rest and drink and admire
the view of snow-capped peaks.
Three decades later I imagine you,
ten years younger than my father
would be if bad genes, bad luck, and bad
doctoring hadn’t killed him long ago.
Without a father to guide me north,
your poems were a compass
pointing toward a world
where doctors can be poets,
where the pulse of each line
begins with the heartbeat we hear
when we bend close to our patients.
I pray you, too, are drinking deep
from whatever stream brings you
to your knees, and I hope
you can hear my boots striding
behind yours, cracked from the heat,
covered with dust, both soles still strong.
Richard M. Berlin, MD
This is not a review of the book, or his other work. For a review
of the book, see the article in Psychiatric
Times. While there, see the essay
he wrote in 2001, about how he happened upon the subspecialty of
Naturally, his path from medicine to creativity was not a straight
line. There were lots of little offshoots.
Is there an interesting tangent we can take, looking at the publicly
available material here?
The book review in Psychiatric Times explains that the book consists of
sixteen essays, many written by poets who are undergoing, of have
undergone, some sort of psychiatric treatment. Two themes emerge:
1) “The struggles of the impaired mind and troubled soul are not what
make quality poetry. It is instead hard work guided by clarity and
Whether from pharmacology or psychotherapy, the essayists in Poets on
Prozac often find new precision through treatment.”
This implies that, for the poets involved in the book, the treatment
2) “Despite this largely unanimous appreciation of treatment in the
book, a second, more subtle theme arises. Although the existence of
illness may not define the poets, healing from illness is entwined with
their paths as artists.”
I have some comments on this. First, despite the
title, this is not a work about the effects of serotonin reuptake
inhibitors upon the creative process. The essayists received
medication in some case, or psychotherapy, or both. Second, it is
most distinctly not a scientific study. It was not randomized, it
was not blind, and it was not controlled by placebo or anything
else. Thus, any conclusions we might draw are necessarily
It says nothing about what usually happens to the creative
process when people undergo treatment, just what happened to a poet’s
dozen of individuals. These are not typical patients. Plus,
the creative process involved in the writing of poetry may not
represent the creative process in general.
Is it possible that some persons find that psychiatric treatment
inhibits creativity; or, could it have both beneficial and deleterious
effects, in some people? Of course.
I once attended a seminar about psychoanalytic psychotherapy, in which a
case was mentioned of a creative person who had expressed a worry that
therapy could diminish creativity. One of the senior analysts
rendered the pronouncement, that creativity that arises from untreated
mental illness is not true creativity. The idea there, is
that psychoanalytic psychotherapy can only improve things. As
appealing as the notion is, it probably is incorrect.
Over the years, I have seen some people complain about the dulling
effect of medication, in particular. Various kinds of emotional
dulling can occur with any class of medication. The complaints
usually arise in persons taking mood stabilizers, or antidepressants,
or sometimes antipsychotic medication. Dulling also can occur
with sedatives and opioids, although for some reasons people don’t seem
to complain about that as much.
We already know that different treatments do different things to
different people. Sometimes, the effects are positive, sometimes
negative; often, the outcome is a mix of positives and negatives.
Nothing new there. Still, it is nice to see that, for some
persons, the positives clearly outweigh the negatives.