This week Madisen Crandall explores the connections between mental health and creativity.
Creative mediums often come with a fair amount of emotional expression. As such, many creative people find their inner emotions painted perfectly on a canvas, written eloquently on bright white paper, tumbling through the notes of a song, completing the rotation of a gorgeous pirouette turn, or what have you. No matter the case, it is often true that the creatives of society tend to leave their emotions out in the open, available for everyone to see.
So, it is natural that throughout history a connection has been drawn between mental health and those of a creative mind. Because of this, the widespread speculation on the topic seems to be justified. Nonetheless, when tasked with the concept of this article I immediately considered a few notable creatives of history who dealt with mental illness. You can nearly hear the desperation of Sylvia Plath seeping through her words as she tackles depression. Or see Van Gogh’s psychosis in the manic brushstrokes of his artwork. Ultimately, as I searched our friend The Internet, I concluded that there is an exceedingly long list of so many other creative icons whose work has been infiltrated by their respective mental struggles.
And yet, each example comes with an intense notoriety. Which brings me to an important point. It is often from the same minds of those who struggle most intensely with mental illness that the lion’s share of notable creative contributions have been made. Or as Aristotle once said, “There is no great genius without some touch of madness.” But why? Why do creatives seem to suffer more with their mental health? Is there something innately wrong with them? Or perhaps, right with them? And if creative populations do suffer more with their mental health, are all
creative outlets then a stage for sick minds? A by-product of human disaster? These are all questions I had to consider as I dove into the literal sea of research on this topic.
Firstly, and possibly most conversely to the purpose of this article, I found that many professionals who have studied this phenomenon believe that there is no real scientific connection between mental illness and the creative mind. This means to say that just because someone is creative does not mean that they are doomed to struggle with mental illness or vice versa. So, no worries, the fact that you love painting during your downtime does not make you susceptible to depression. In fact, many studies have found that the vast majority of creative people do not struggle with mental illness. And while there is an overwhelming amount of famous artists, writers, musicians, and so on who have dealt with mental illness, they are generally considered the minority of creatives as a group.
This does not explain however, the prevalent connection between creative persons who have diagnosable mental illness and their creative mediums. Or the fact that their mental health seems prevalent in their respective work. Nor does this explain the pattern of repetition observed that arguably the most notable creatives throughout history did suffer mentally. Even while this discussion remains, on the whole, quite controversial among experts in the field, the general stereotype that fuels this phenomenon remains undisputed. Or in other words, while many professionals who study the supposed connection between mental and creativity disagree that a connection exists at all to begin with, they often acknowledge the general belief of the public in such a connection and verify the existence of creative people who also suffer with mental health. And so, with an eagerness to understand such science for myself, I turned to medical journals for the intricacies behind both occurrences of mental illness and creativity.
By definition, mental illness refers to a wide range of mental disorders that affect the functionality of a person. In addition, it is speculated that mental illness primarily affects information processing in the brain. Which literally means that mental illness attacks the neural systems our brain uses to interpret stimuli. This is done on a variety of levels within the brain, each differing slightly depending on the diagnosed illness. Creativity, on the other hand, is a specific way that a person processes information – or in other words, how a person’s brain takes information in, interprets information, and reacts to it. If you haven’t connected the dots, allow me to. Creativity is a specific way to process information, and mental illness impacts the ability to process information. Both then affect the way one perceives the world. You see where I am going? Mental illness and creativity occur on the same neural pathways of information processing. Which leads to the conclusion that even though not all creative people are mentally ill and the other way around, it would seem that the two groups process information in similar ways.
Take for example a person who struggles with depression. Depression is a mental illness that specifically affects the levels of Serotonin in the brain, a chemical directly linked to emotion and information processing. Those who suffer from depression will generally feel a persistent sadness and sense of hopelessness. Additionally, it is common for depression to cause major fluctuations in sleep schedule, appetite, and energy levels. When comparing these attributes to a creative individual, we can see certain commonalities between the two. Often, the works of creative people appear to an outsider to be sad or depicting sadness. Artwork in any form is expressive and as sadness is one of the poignant human emotions, it is expressed almost effortlessly in many cases. Furthermore, as creatives are typically those who express themselves more freely, fluctuations in energy, emotion, appetite, and so on seem to the average person likely a bit more erratic. This is not to say that all creatives behave the same or that all of those who suffer with depression behave the same. But as we compare the two groups, it is essential to understand the typical individual who helps comprise said groups. Afterall, it is in the comparison of these individuals that we see patterns displayed and commonality linking the two groups. Commonality, that over time has resulted in the connection between mental health and creativity. A concept that is highlighted well when we consider creativity and mental health in the average person on a daily basis.
Creativity is subjective. Meaning that what one might consider to be “creative” another may view as traditional or usual. So while the likes of Sylvia Plath and Van Gough are considered creative people by many, creativity does not necessarily abide within the bounds of fame and notoriety exemplified by them alone. In fact, it is well understood that most creative thought occurs daily and in more subtle ways than the magnificence of Starry Night. It is through these minute, day-to-day processes that the real connection between creativity and mental health can truly be observed. By rough approximation, 1 in 4 people will struggle with a mental health issue in the UK in a single year. In assuming human creativity extends to every UK inhabitant to some extent and within their individual bounds of creative definition on a daily basis, it is reasonable to conclude that each person who struggles with their mental health will also experience creative processing. Resulting in a population of people who both suffer with their mental health and are considered “creative” in one way or another.
It is also crucial to note that the combination of creativity and mental health is not necessarily a bad thing. In many settings of therapy or assistance with mental health, creative mediums are often employed. Countless people have found solace, comfort, and healing from their mental struggles on the keys of a piano, at the tip of a pen, and in many other creative circumstances.
Humans are emotional beings. At one point or another we will all find ourselves within the clutches of emotional struggle and possibly mental health struggle. And something powerful happens when we are brave enough to express that struggle wherever our creativity takes us. And so, if there is anything to be definitely said of the connection between mental health and creativity, it is that the two seem to coexist quite beautifully.
You can read more of Madisen’s work on Twitter by following @wordsofmadisenlee
Illustrations by Joe Bailey Photographs via Unsplash
If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, know that help is available. Please visit http://www.NHS.uk for 24/7 access to mental health hotlines, informational and support groups, and many more amazing resources. You are not alone, you are valuable, you are going to get through this.