Creativity's Workshop

Taming and Training Your Creativity to Write Abundantly

Do Creativity and Mental Illness Go Hand in Hand?

11 Comments

As mentioned in my previous post, I’m on hiatus from my regular blogging schedule. However, I did say I’d pop by from time to time with posts that I feel may interest my readers here. Below is an ‘essay’ I wrote over at the Google+ group Creshen which sparked a very interesting discussion, so I’m posting a copy of it here too. Please feel free to add your comments on the subject.

Anyone who has spent time researching creativity has at some point come across articles discussing the supposed link between creativity and mental illness. Since the news of Robin William’s suicide, I’ve come across several of these articles. Usually the articles point to studies that “have found higher rates of mania, severe depression, and suicide in creative individuals.” It feels like people are very quick to point to connections between ‘creative people’ and ‘mental illness.’

I firmly believe that everyone has the ability to be creative, but that only certain people cultivate that ability. I don’t think there are ‘creative people’ and ‘non-creative people’ so much as there are ‘people who embrace their creativity’ and ‘people who haven’t yet discovered or tapped into that aspect of their brain yet.’

In my experience, creativity is often stifled by:

  • Overwork (not having the time to pursue creative activities or the mental space to experiment)
  • Stigma (feeling that being creative isn’t ‘cool’ or creativity is something you’ve either got or you haven’t got, rather than something you can cultivate)
  • Fear (feeling that you can’t create, that you won’t be able to do things right, or that your efforts will be embarrassing)

Our culture tends to set creative people apart, as if they’ve got some gene (or some illness?) that gives them that talent. I think that adds an extra barrier, because it implies that if you do feel creative you’ve somehow got to prove that you belong in that group…and then you have to deal with all the hidden extras (like depression?) that ‘everyone knows’ comes with that territory.

My hunch is that people with mental illness are more likely to be creative because:

a) they may not have the ability to ‘overwork’ and so are able to set aside time for creative pursuits,

b) they may be socially isolated, which means they’re not so worried about what their peers will think of them if they’re being creative,

c) they use creative activities to help cope with their depression/anxiety because either they have independently found it helpful or their therapist has suggested they give something creative a go.

So what if we’ve been looking at the statistics the wrong way round? What if instead of looking at the statistics and saying “higher rates of mental illness have been found in creative people,” we instead say “higher rates of creativity have been found in people with mental illness”? Why not turn the attention from the creative people with mental illness to the rest of the population and say, “What is it about those with mental illness that means they are “disproportionately likely to be overrepresented in creative occupations“? What can those of us who are less creative learn from people with mental illness who are doing creative things?”

Let’s go back for a moment to the point above that many therapists suggest patients try creative activities. How many people who suffer from mental illness wouldn’t have realized they were creative unless they’d been given this push?

Now, imagine if a ‘normal’, otherwise ‘non-creative’ person were told, “Instead of working overtime this weekend, why not take a pottery class? If you invest your time and interest in this regularly, you will do better at work, be happier, and feel healthier within yourself.” How many more people would suddenly ‘become creative’?

What if, when you went to your doctor, he/she not only suggested you do 30 minutes of exercise a day, but also suggested you do 30 minutes of creative activity a day? What if the two fruits and five veggies a day was applied to something like two photographs and five haiku a day? What if creative pursuits were treated as essential to your mental and emotional health? How many people would suddenly open up and show their creative side?

I guess the reason I’m upset is because these articles make it sound like being creative can be harmful for your mental health (and I know some people who do buy into this way of looking at things), and yet in my experience I’ve seen it be extremely good for mental health.

Am I looking at this all a little skewiff or am I not the only one noticing this? I honestly would love to know your opinion.

P.S. For a balanced view on the psychology behind the supposed link between creativity and mental illness, take a look at this post by psychologist Joycelyn Campbell.

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Author: Jessica

A writer who refuses to pin herself down to one genre. I'm passionate about helping other writers find their Creativity and enjoy a prolific writing life. You can always contact me by writing to Jessica at creativitysworkshop dot com, or follow me on Twitter @jessbaverstock

11 thoughts on “Do Creativity and Mental Illness Go Hand in Hand?

  1. \o/

    I like your thinking. I suspect it might be a chicken/egg debate, but I think your lateral thinking is brilliant (and creative lol) and I’m going to read and think more about it all. Thanks for posting it here, I wouldn’t have seen it otherwise.

  2. Creative professions are actively discouraged in favour of hard nosed sensible professions – not that there’s no creativity in those, but still …

    Art etc are definitely seen as rather whimsical choices.

    • Thanks so much for your comments, bpdyke. 🙂 It may indeed be a chicken/egg thing, but I’m hoping we can decide to see it in a positive way rather than negative.

      Yes, ‘sensible’ professions are encouraged as the perception seems to be that either ‘it’s not possible to make a living through creativity,’ or ‘you’re selling yourself out if you’re making money from your art’ — both of which are strongly entrenched myths in our culture today.

      • Well, society is a sonofabitch, on the collective whole. Glad it also breeds independent thinkers like you though. Keep on keepin’ on (:

  3. I prefer the second option about looking at creativity and mental health issues. I know if I’m not writing/drawing/playing in the garden, I definitely deal with more severe symptoms of SAD. And, truth be told, those symptoms tend to be worst when I am dealing with overwork, lack of personal creative time, and/or anything else that chokes off the creative process – including the thought that I may one day have to have a professor “shadow” all of my social media because of the career track I am pursuing right now. That REALLY puts a damper on the creative side of things.

    • Thanks so much for your comment! 🙂 I appreciate hearing your thoughts on the subject.

      Yes, I find my anxiety levels go up markedly when I’m dealing with overwork and lack of personal creative time. Recognising that is liberating though, because it gives us an incentive to carve out creative time because we know it will have a beneficial effect.

  4. Hi Jessica, I like your style and your somewhat contrarian view. I appreciate that it is the creative part of each of us that generates a contrarian perspective.To my my mind creativity is seeing things that others don’t, or seeing the things that others do; yet in a novel, unusual, unfamilair, unique and altogether individual way. Each person harbours a seed of creativity. Some have learnt to nourish it, let it grow and flourish whilst others have learnt to wrap it up tightly and put it in a dark cupboard. Are you aware of the work of Sir Ken Robinson? You might find him very interesting. His TED talk (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY) in 2007 is one of the most watched you Tube videos with over 20,000,000 views of its various iterations. His books are thought provoking and add valuable insight into matters of creatibvity and passion. His blog (http://sirkenrobinson.com) is also informative. Thanks for seeing the world differently.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Geoff. I have a very similar view of creativity. I like your description! 🙂

      I’ve actually featured Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on this site a couple of years ago. He has such an interesting and deep understanding of creativity. I love learning from him. Thanks for adding in the links!

  5. They don’t actually. There’s a lot more mental illness in the world than there is creativity. (Or is that just in MY world?)

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