Charles Dickens and depression

Charles Dickens, one of England’s greatest writers, known for Oliver Twist and a Christmas Carol. We often see famous or important people as infallible. In our eyes there is never anything wrong with them. But nothing is less true. These people can also be ill. So did Charles Dickens; Charles Dickens suffered from depression. Using examples from his life, I want to tell you more about what depression exactly is, how exactly it can arise and how it can progress.


There are several symptoms that indicate depression. The symptoms can be divided into three different types; emotional, physiological and cognitive. The most common emotion in depressed people is sadness. And not a kind of sadness that we all feel sometimes, but a deep, intense pain. Anhedonia can also occur in humans. This is the loss in the lust of life. Depressed people often have sleep problems, changes in appetite and activity levels. Sometimes they suffer from psychomotor retardation. They walk and move slower than usual. Many people with depression lack energy and feel tired all the time. Instead of psychomotor retardation, they may also suffer from psychomotor agitation. They cannot sit still and feel agitated. People with depression often feel worthless, guilty, hopeless and sometimes even suicidal. They have difficulty concentrating and making decisions. In very severe cases, people with depression can suffer from delusions and hallucinations, but it is not known whether Charles Dickens also suffered from these. If people do suffer from this, they hear, see, believe or feel things that are not true (Nolen-Hoeksema, 2007). However, the feelings of listlessness can be found in the works of Charles Dickens and in his plays. It is known that these were largely autobiographical.

Risk factors

There are several risk factors that increase the risk of mental illness. In the case of Charles Dickens these are, for example. Early Control Experiences and Parental Responses . Early control experiences involve whether people have control over certain aspects of their lives, for example access to food (Vasey & Dadds, 2001). At the beginning of his life, Charles Dickens’ parents were quite wealthy, but then his father was imprisoned due to debts and Charles had to live with his mother and seven brothers and sisters with a family friend. This made them much less able to take care of themselves. At the age of 12, Charles had to start working. He did hard work, was not paid much for it, and had to try to help support his family. Then it became a lot more difficult to get food. Parents can contribute to the development of their children (parental responses), but as I already wrote, Charles’s father was in prison and could therefore do nothing about his upbringing. Moreover, Charles was the second child of eight children, so his mother had little time for each child anyway ( Charles Dickens also survived a train accident in 1865. Although he was no longer a young person here, this still made an impression on him. He himself wrote about this:
I am still quite right within, but believe it to be an effect of the railway shaking. I am curiously weak – weak as if I were recovering from a long illness. (Jongedijk, 2006)
There are also so-called resilience factors . These factors can actually protect against developing a mental illness. And evidence of this can also be found in the life of young Charles. For example, he had a lot of family to rely on, he was intelligent and he could write off many of his problems. This falls under the so-called individual resilience factors and family resilience factors (Masten & Coatsworth, 1998; Werner & Smith, 1982, 2001, as read in Abnormal Child and Adolescent Psychology, Wicks-Nelson & Israel, 2009).


Mental illnesses can go away or can persist forever. If it continues to exist, we speak of continuity . There are two kinds; heterotypic and homotypic. Homotypical progression means that the mental illness remains the same over the years. In heterotypic progression, the person continues to have a mental illness, but the type of mental illness changes. I suspect that this was the case with Charles Dickens, that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after his train accident, as he himself actually indicated.


Having depression is a very bad thing, but it is not insurmountable. With the right support from the environment and the right attitude, it can pass or perhaps even be prevented. Unfortunately, overcoming depression does not mean that someone is healthy; it may also be that another mental illness develops. In the case of Charles Dickens this is so. After his depression, Charles suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

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