Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Creativity and the connection to mental illness

If you saw the movie, The Soloist, or read the book, then you would know who Nathaniel Ayers is. NAMI had their annual national convention recently iCheck Spellingn San Francisco. I was not able to go there, but they sent an email with these videos of Ayers performing. He is an incredible musician, and I would have loved to have been there to see him in person.

I recently came across this article, which says there was a recent study that showed a genetic link between mental illness and creativity. I found this interesting, because I have read numerous such articles and books which mention such a link in the past. Perhaps you are familiar with Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist who works for Johns Hopkins and has written several books, as she herself has Bipolar Disorder and is also an expert in the field. One of her books is called Touched by Fire, and describes numerous artists, musicians, and performers who have or had mental illnesses. The book delves into the idea that there is a link between one's creative abilities and mental illness. I have always been interested in this possible connection.

I have often thought that, although there does seem to be a connection (particularly between mania and creativity), the fact that people who have become famous for their creativity have also had mental health issues is sometimes used to romanticize mental illness, as if it is somehow a gift from God (if one believes in a god, which not all of us do) which one is lucky to have. Creativity is wonderful, and I would call it a gift. Mental illness, however, is obviously not something most people wish for. Mental illnesses can be disabling, and can lead to an early death. They can incapacitate people and cause unbearable misery. They destroy people, sometimes. I do not consider the pain, distress, financial difficulties, isolation, and discrimination people get from mental illnesses to be thing that are outweighed by creative abilities. I would rather not be creative and not have a mental illness, thanks. Schizophrenia isn't really so enjoyable.

I am just trying to explain why these comparisons can go awry, and why they often annoy me. I feel that there are many people who have made great gifts to the world, while they also went through hell with mental illnesses. But I don't think most of those people would choose the mental illness even if it was par for the course with creativity. However, even as I say this, I think of Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Hemingway, and many others who have made lasting, substantial contributions to society in art and literature. I am grateful that these people were able to create as well as they were. I just wonder, if they did not have to live with mental illnesses, how much longer may they have lived and how many more creations might they have contributed. I don't doubt that there is a link between mental illness and creativity. I just worry that it gets overstated, that people with mental illnesses who do not happen to be creative are viewed as somehow missing the boat, or not living up to what they should have been able to do as a person who is Bipolar or Schizophrenic, because they were not able to make huge impacts in art or literature....I think we should value others, and ourselves, for everything we contribute to this world, especially when those contributions are made despite overwhelming obstacles. I appreciate the blogs people write, for example, about mental illnesses, and am glad those people have the ability to write. If they didn't have that ability, I think it would be a loss to society of people who are able to educate the world about their experiences. If they did not find it easy to write blogs, however, they would still be worthy human beings deserving of support and appreciation for being just who they are.

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts in this topic as well.


  1. I think people with mental illnesses often have a more pressing need to be expressive because their illness thwarts their ability to fit in. I also believe that any kind of creativity is important therapy, a kind of soothing release. Human beings are by nature creative physically and with language. We make things and arrange things and react to things and remember things, we communicate. Some people with mental illness may seem more creative than others because they have to overcome more obstacles. Overcoming obstacles leads to being inventive. Mental illness, while often destructive, is richly imaginative. So there's this element of being unorthodox, of not conforming. Conformity is about following, fitting in and not so much about creativity. Some people with mental illness may very much want to conform, but are unable to and therefore take a different approach. Also, since many artists and artworks are given high status, it's a way for those with mental illness to be accepted by society at large. A way to fit in while still living an unconventional life. Mental illness is not romantic, but it is challenging, and for those of us who survive the challenges, which many of us do not, our lives become enriched by our struggles. And when you get down to it, all people struggle.


  2. This is a topic I ponder almost daily. I think that what you are describing is a stigma. Even though, mental illness does not lead to more or less creativity. The other stigma causes society to believe that people with mental illness are monsters, dangerous, the list goes on. Anyway, I can only give you my experience. I am what you may call an artist. I hate the label because in my mind, we all have the ability to express ourselves. Society rules and standards force the average joe to keep his/her "different" thoughts to one's self. I am a painter and creative director so most people assume that I must be creative. Art is a tool I have used for years. I use it to speak since I am very shy but have lots of thoughts. It allows me to be control and inspire an audience. Creativity also makes me happy. When I am not creative, I am sad because I think too much. I can best compare it to a hunger I must satisfy. The only known mental illness I seem to have is possibly OCD (I plan to see a therapist soon) and slight depression. But OCD can cause anxiety and depression. I will say that I owe much of my creativity to my odd thoughts and desire to challenge the norm. I know these thoughts are odd since others tell me so. I don't think they are odd, but just different from the norm. I have been called weird more times than I can count. I believe that innovation, creation, expression and invention exist because we challenge what is normal. I thrive on this philosophy. I do agree with you that individuals such as Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath can be sensationalized because of their mental illness. But I tend to think that their art stood out because they were expressing such obvious pain. I mention both of them in my documentary which I hope to show you when it is done. Their art was their therapy. I think people tend to choose art as expression since that is a personal therapy that can not be replaced by a doctor or pill. Lastly, there is a history of mental illness in my family. I often wonder if this has contributed to my creativity biologically. I like to think it has. I am very sensitive like my brother and weird like my dad. So, unfortunately, my story tends to support the idea that creativity and mental illness may be linked. I could go on and on. My thoughts race sometimes so my writing may sound all over the place and points may be lost. Take care!

  3. First off, that was just a joy to read.

    Second, thanks for following my blog. Who knew about all of us notquitesane people are out there? Eff you, Stigma!

    I've pondered on the creativity link, like self abuse, it just seems a pattern among the mentally ill.

    I'm only half way joking when I say I feel a bit jipped by having very little creative ability. I follow instructions really well fortunately.

  4. You wrote it so well! I know that my son is creative but I also know that he would choose no mental illness and no creativity if he could! He LOVES playing poker and it is like therapy for him. I would put this in the creativity category because he is better than good at it! I find myself looking at all his talents and it is so frustrating to know that the illness keeps him from reaching for so much more... it is just not fair and he just wants to be normal...
    What you said about the choice rang true for not just the ones with the illness but the people who are close to them and know their daily struggles...
    Hope this made sense...
    Janet (NAMI TN)

  5. You all have such interesting, logical, and well-thoight-out things to say on this topic! Kate, you made a lot of good points with which I agree, and Amber did too. Elizabeth, thanks for what you said and for stopping by my humble blog! I love yours, and it's nice to meet you. Nice to hear from you too, Janet.

    I thik I will post again on this topic when I'm less tired and my vision is in a state of non-blurriness, unlike right now. As it is, I can't see the screen. Definitely need to see my eye doctor about the Sjogren's again, but he's out of town.

    Anyway, I am really glad so many people chimed in on this topic. I think I could say much more on it and will definitely try to do that here in the near future.


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