Creativity's Workshop

Taming and Training Your Creativity to Write Abundantly


Do Creativity and Mental Illness Go Hand in Hand?

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.