A Letter to the Creators: Creativity and Mental Illness

Picture the night in wavy brush strokes of yellow and blue over a European town. See the man grasping his face as he yells against the peaceful backdrop of a yellow-orange sky. Now, look at the clocks as they droop over an abstract landscape. Starry Night, The Scream and The Persistence of Memory — these are three of the most famous pieces of art in history, created by Vincent van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Salvador Dali respectively. The connections between these works of art are twofold — these men are expert creatives, and they had a mental or personality disorder. There is a standing notion among the creators that creativity is increased by mental illness, by personality disorders and psychosis. As a lover of creativity, art and the study of mental illness myself, I feel the need to discuss the topic of mental illness and whether or not it leads to an increase in creativity in the mind.

This topic has long been discussed, it has been beaten to a pulp and from that pulp, I believe I have found some answers. After conducting a relatively extensive study of the topic, I conclude that there is no correlation between the creativity and the illness of the mind. How could I say such a thing? I mean haven’t you heard of van Gogh? That guy cut his ear off — that sounds like he had some mental problems if you ask me! Well you are right — he did, and so did a slew of other artists. However, the mood disorders and mental illnesses of these artists were not the reason they are considered to be creative geniuses. There are plenty of men and women who are considered creative who are mentally healthy, and to the contrary, there are plenty of people with a mental illness who can’t draw a stick figure correctly.

The theory that mental illness increases creativity is stuck in the muck of hundreds of years of the artist being the outcast and the emotional of society
— it is all a grand misunderstanding. This misunderstanding is a problem. It leads the artist and the creative to believe that they need to be sick in the mind and emotionally a mess. It leads to thoughts of being able to produce your best work only when swimming in the deepest of emotions. As a creative myself I have dealt with this personally. I often find I am at my most emotional state when creating. As I create, the process amplifies my emotions for better, or for worse. At times it spirals into a deep and dark place that few would venture to go. These enhanced emotions for someone with a mental disorder are dangerous; they can lead to panic attacks, major depressive episodes, and manic episodes. The theory that the mentally ill are more creative leads artists to not seek the adequate help for their disorders — if you truly believe that your mental illness increases your production of creativity, then why would you seek help? Why would you seek counseling, or medication, and miss out on the believed benefits of being mentally ill? This is why we must understand that being mentally ill does not increase creativity. In truth, you may seek help. You don’t have to suffer in silence and paint your shattered soul on a canvas, you are defined as an artist by who you are, not by what illness you have.

Through my studies of the topic, I propose a few reasons for this misunderstanding — the complexity of measuring creativity, the purpose of art for the emotions and the link of madness and creativity. I will take a look at these proposed reasons individually.

Creativity is a difficult thing to measure. You hear people all the time willing to tell you, “I wish I was more creativity”, “I wish I was artsy”. Creativity — does this mean you can draw a person well? Does it mean you know how to take a “cool” picture? Maybe it just means you are a wizard with Crayola crayons? Well, any way you approach creativity it is difficult to measure. However, in the scholarly realm, there is a definition of creativity that is widely accepted: creativity is the use of the imagination to create new and original pieces and solve complex problems. With the difficulty in measuring this aspect of the human mind — it has been very difficult to prove or disprove the connection of creativity to mental illness. How can you disprove something that is not able to be measured? This is the reason this topic has survived for so long — without a specific, defined view of creativity and a distinct disconnection to mental illness it is difficult to make a claim. Therefore, the argument will keep it’s doors open.

Though there may be no definite conclusion, there is some scientific evidence that correlates creativity to madness.

Within the right brain, the mental processes of creativity and of madness work the same way. Or in other words, the brain operates in a person acting creatively similarly to a person in a psychotic episode. This finding is relatively new and provides for a greater understanding of this topic and the reason it is so prevalent. When we look at a creative person who suffers from a mental disorder like schizophrenia or schizotypy (those considered “mad”) the possibility of more creativity is there. Yet, this is a small group of those categorized as “mentally ill”. The truth of the matter is that there are millions who suffer from mental illness and have no signs of psychosis (madness). However, there is a small group who do, and they could be considered as more creative. This connection could have easily led to a misconception that there is a correlation being between, not just the psychotic, but all mentally ill and creative.

Creativity is often seen in the form of art. What is art exactly? Art is usually generally described as creating to express feeling or emotion. This connection of art to the feelings of the human experience is a key to our problem. Art is closely related to emotions. A person suffering from mental illness will feel emotions strongly and deeply — this may lead to a greater opportunity to capture that emotion and to put it on paper, or whatever the medium. This is true, and it is easy to see how this idea could be distorted to mean that those in emotional disorder are more creative. Nonetheless, this is a correlation between the expression of emotion and art. The creativity itself is not being expressed more or less. I hope you can see that the close relationship between emotions and art lead to the misunderstanding of the correlation between mental illness and art. This is major. If we can help the people understand that they can express emotion in art beautifully and creatively without suffering consequences of being untreated and mentally ill, we can change this hurtful stigma. We can create a mentally healthy environment for our fellow artists and we can use art as a tool to heal, rather than a weapon to wound. The cure is within the industry itself.

To conclude I would like to speak to the artist, the creator, and simply, the everyday go-getter. For those without a mental illness I ask, have you heard of Jane Austin? Johann Sebastian Bach? William Shakespeare? Most likely you have. None of these artists had any evidence of a disorder.
To those suffering from a mental illness: you do not need to hide; your efforts and your work are not supported by your suffering inside. The idea that creativity is benefited by mental turmoil is incorrect. You can feel and not suffer. There is no shame, no fear, in seeking help. There are resources available to you and the grass really is greener on this side. I stand and say that mental illness is real: it affects millions. You are not alone. From the poet to the painter, the writer to the rapper, and the designer to the doodler — there is a way to express yourself emotionally and also find peace to your mind. If you don’t believe me give it a try. Talk to someone about it. Add a bright sun to the raging waves on the dark sea. See how your life — and your art — changes.

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