Before I get going with this post, I feel that I need to offer a little disclaimer. I am not a student of Psychology or Sociology and have no qualifications in these fields, so the opinions that follow are my own, uneducated observations, unless I link directly to something written by someone with a greater knowledge in the field of the mind than I. With all that said…
Creativity and Mental Health
At various points in my life, I’ve had conversations with friends, colleagues and even some strangers about the links between creativity and mental health. The image of the ‘tortured artist’ is prevalent in society to the point where it has become somewhat of a cliché. Are we all tortured though? Do we have to be mentally ill to write, paint, sing, compose, draw or do anything creative? Obviously, the answer is no. I am pretty sure that there are plenty of creative people out there who are of sound mind and body. There is some interesting evidence linking mental health to creativity out there though.
Some of you reading this will know about my own personal battle with depression that’s been going on for years now. It’s not an easy illness to live with and it can make me not only suicidal, but incredibly self-destructive too. Despite all the drawbacks, I did find that while I was in one of my lowest phases, I was writing an awful lot of poetry. Yes, the poetry was dark and sometimes depressing, but it was helping me to express how I felt in the only way I knew how.
There have been a few studies done over the years to try to establish if there is a link between mental health problems and creativity. Most notably one conducted in Sweden, which found that creativity and mental illness do not necessarily have a link, with the possible exception of Bipolar Disorder and the possibility that writers tended to suffer from depression more than other creative types.
The problem with these kind of studies is that the notion of ‘creativity’ can be very subjective. The Swedish study didn’t properly define what they considered creative, except to say that scientific creativity consisted of doing research and teaching at universities. Furthermore, they didn’t specify a difference between artistic creativity with the exception of writers. Finally, even if they had specified between artistic creativity, their idea of what that creativity is might not necessarily be the same as everyone else’s.
The American neuropsychiatrist, Nancy Andreasen conducted a study of the writers of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She conducted first person interviews with them regarding their personal struggles with mental illness. She discovered that the idea of the ‘tortured artist’ wasn’t necessarily true, that these writers had become successful despite their mental illnesses, not because of them. They overcame their struggles and even mentioned that while they were in a period of depression, they found that their creativity was stifled by the illness. Andreasen documented her findings in the book ‘The Creative Mind‘.
So what does all of this mean to me?
Since the Andreasen study seems to show that the Iowa writers overcame their mental illnesses in order to become successful, I think it’s fair to say that the ‘tortured artist’ cliché is just a myth. It’s certainly true that at first, my own depression was adding fuel to my creativity, inspiring me to write quite a few poems in a short space of time. I think though, that for me this process was a cathartic one. It helped me to take stock of and understand the emotions I was going through at the time. By interpreting those emotions into words and putting them down on paper, I was able to look at them, analyse them and see what was going on in my mind. Sort of like an emotional ‘selfie’, which I guess most poetry is anyway.
The thing that stands out the most to me is that after that initial flurry of creativity, I stopped almost completely. Perhaps, as the Iowa writers attested, my mental illness had become a barrier to my creativity once I had poured my feelings out. Certainly my attempts at writing since then until now have been half-hearted. Now that I know that my mental illness has this effect on my creativity, maybe I won’t be so hard on myself in the future if I’m feeling down and finding it hard to write. If that’s the case, maybe that can help me in controlling my depression by introducing another positive thought into my CBT bat-belt of tricks. That can only be a good thing, I think.
In conclusion, while nothing that’s been said above can definitively answer the question regarding the link between mental illness and creativity, I think that, wherever your creativity comes from, whether you’re artistically creative, scientifically creative or creative in business, as long as you’re taking risks and dreaming your dreams, that’s all that matters. So while the answer to our question may remain ambiguous, it does seem that you don’t actually have to be mad to work here, but in some cases, it might help!