Every feeling, thought, and experience we encounter is viewed from the brain. We create mental frames for what we take to be reality. When our brain attempts to distort this reality, ie trauma, addictions, and mental illness, we find creative ways to build our own. The correlation between mental illness and creativity is one often discussed, the focus usually on whether or not the illness is the cause of original thought.
As a mentally ill person, the ability to create and use art to express my feelings is one of my most valuable coping mechanisms. It allows me multiple means to show my feelings to others, including music, art, and the written word. Recently, I have begun wondering who I would be without my illness. Some of the works I have made and am most proud of have come from times of deep stress and depression, and some have also come from times of pure clarity and joy.
A considerable part of our society today involves condemning ideas that deviate from the norm. Both creative thinking and mental illness involve attributes that can be viewed as different and abnormal.Just as in all aspects of living with mental illness, there are advantages and limitations involved with being a mentally ill artist. If your thoughts and experiences are already viewed as divergent, you may be more open to creative thinking. Psychologist J.P Guilford concluded in his studies that “creative individuals were far more likely to exhibit divergent rather than convergent thinking.” Many others have proven that people with strong emotional responses in general tend to have more elaborate cognitive operations, which allows for broader creative thought. While varying emotions may call for more creation, mental illness drastically changes how one views life, and can have a deep impact on an artist’s work. Positive, welcoming environments with the freedom to take risks have been correlated with higher ability of creative thinking. With some mental illnesses, no matter where you are, the brain does not allow this mindset. The brain may tell the mentally ill artist that the work isn’t worthy, to give up, that you will never achieve anything, therefore convincing the artist it is not safe to share anything. When experiencing emotion and reactions that are not in your control, you are more inclined to gaze inward and question the reasons and meanings of these emotions. Depression and suicide can lean toward ruminating on the meaning of life and purpose. While this may create more art, frequently darkness is just darkness, not a creative tool. It is dangerous to ignore it for the sake of art, and leave illness untreated.
One concern when discussing the work of mentally ill artists stems from the fact that many people do not understand that mental illness is not black and white. They think it involves either always experiencing symptoms (what they label as insanity), or not at all (sanity). In her book on the connections between the bipolar illness and the artistic temperament, Kay Redfield Jamison notes, “Lucidity, however, is not incompatible with occasional bouts of madness, just as extended periods of normal physical health are not incompatible with occasional bouts of disease.” Scholars are quick to deny accusations of great artists being mentally ill, as they believe it will take away from the significant effort they put into their works. In discussing the life and work of William Blake, writer Harold Nicolson notes, “For those who defend against charges of insanity, much of the concern seems to stem from assumptions that “mad” is somehow “bad”, that madness if a fixed condition with no periods of rational thought or experience, that great art cannot come from madness and, therefore, great artists cannot have been mad.” Artists who are suspected to have suffered from mental illness did not necessarily spawn their work in an illness induced state, or worked on it through a time that included many mental states. Jamison also notes, “In order for far-flung or chaotic thoughts to be transformed into art, original and meaningful connections must be made”. So called insanity itself does not necessarily bring out ingenious ideas, it is often just a hazy period of thought with no rationality. Multiple artists note that while they conceived an idea during a bout of self-defined “madness”, they fixed and refined the idea while experiencing a clear mental state. Either way, since mental illness is an illness like any other, the illness of an artist should add no negative connotations to their work, as illness is not something that can be controlled.
Another issue when discussing the mental health of an artist, is the “tortured artist” trope can often lead to misdiagnosis, or forced pain for the sake of art. Many poets and scholars imply that great learning comes from great suffering. Younger artists who see this suffering may seek to replicate it, as it is showed to them as the birthplace of great work. It is important to note that artists do not have to be mentally ill to suffer. All lives have varying emotions, and emotional ups and downs. Countless artists have times of great passion where they focus only on their project which some can either be misdiagnosed as mania, or wrongfully attribute these fits to the artist’s personality, so they are never treated or consider that they might have a mental illness. Since artists are already seen as different thinkers, they may not consider the fact that their unordinary thinking may stem from illness. In contrast to this, viewing all artists as crazy and mad normalizes this idea and takes away from the suffering of the mentally ill.
As simple as it can be put, art is the expression of an idea, and our ideas originate from the mind. “We have the most complex tool in the world, our mind, and no manual”, notes Hindu Monk Dandapani, who dedicates his life to helping people navigate their brains. There is no correct way to express yourself. No matter the judgement on the content you create. art is a way to convey and often rid yourself of feelings. From journalling to composing great symphonies, many artists write about how freeing it is to finally finish a work on a particular subject, as if it has taken the feeling away. Art is used as therapy in many areas of health and recovery. Writing fiction can allow you to escape to a new world, plunging yourself into a project is a way to leave behind your emotions for the time being.
With all the discourse surrounding the correlation between art and the mentally ill, it is crucial to encourage mentally ill people to express themselves creatively. If no one with mental health issues ever made art, our world today would be void of so many seminal creations. It is imperative to tell our stories so others feel represented and know they are not alone. Most representations of mental illness in media in general today involve negative unrealistic portrayals, and use the illness as a plot point. Positive and realistic representations of mental illness in the media influences people to seek help and helps people better understand what life is like as someone with a mental illness. These representations are best written by people who have experienced them. No matter how much trouble I have with my illness, it is part of who I am. It has had an undeniable effect on my work and creativity, and has allowed me to experience emotions that have led me to create great work. The emotions connected to living life mentally ill are on a different plane than average. Maybe this is why when artists express these feelings in work it’s seen as revolutionary. They have gone to the darkest, highest, and farthest away places, and have come back to tell the tale. But this does not mean they went there willingly. As the poet Lord Byron, who is famously thought to have been mentally ill, said “I can never get people to understand that poetry is the expression of excited passion, and that there is no such thing as a life of passion anymore than a continuous earthquake, or an eternal fever. Besides, who would ever shave themselves to that state? ✉
article by: ellen grace
visual by: bailey asher