Debunking The Problematic Myth That Mental Illness Always Goes Hand In Hand With Creativity
The Debrief: From Virginia Woolf to Sylvia Plath, mental health problems have long been fetishised and linked to being a ‘creative genius’
When you think of mental illness, what are the first things that come to mind? For many of us, so much of what little we know about mental health comes from cultural reference points – our literary heroines like Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf; and so many of history's great artists, composers and scientists.
It's not surprising, then, that the common association between mental illness and brilliant minds persists – despite the fact that worrying stats published last week show as many as one in five women in England report symptoms of anxiety and depression.
We can't all be struggling with our mental health because we're creative geniuses (and, even if we are, there’s a very real danger that this long-running association glamourises mental illness) but just how much of a role does creativity and intelligence play in making us susceptible to mental illness? Are mental health problems simply the price you pay for having a ‘brilliant mind’? Well, the simple answer is no – but - it's complicated.
While there are studies which claim to have found a link between creativity and mental illness, there are many legitimate reasons to caution against making too much of such associations.
‘Some studies do indicate that diagnoses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are linked to creativity’, explains Dr Victoria Tischler, a psychologist based at the University of Nottingham. ‘Symptoms like disinhibition, high energy levels, divergent thinking – the ability to generate lots of ideas and solutions – and flight of ideas are associated with creative activity.’
However, she adds: ‘severe mental illness is not conducive to creativity and is often highly demotivating, resulting in low energy and even suicidal thoughts.’ This is a misconception that 25-year-old Katie, who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, has come up against. ‘I think the idea of the tragic, flawed genius like van Gogh really romanticises [bipolar] as an illness. There's this idea that all the suffering is worth it to have made these creative masterpieces’, she says.
It's also a connection that doesn't really ring true for her. ‘I guess [having bipolar] you might have a bit of a deeper understanding of pain, and then there's the lack of inhibition and flow of ideas, but that doesn't last for very long, compared to the downsides – and there's no guarantee that what you create is even going to be good. Most of the stuff you create when you're manic doesn't make sense because you can't possibly concentrate on it for more than two minutes’, she explains.
‘Having bipolar and not being creative almost feels like another thing I've failed at, because people assume that you must be really in touch with yourself and arty. That's quite frustrating. Mania isn't fun and amazing; it's horrible.'
So if mental ill health can, in fact, be detrimental to creativity, is there any evidence that people with brilliant minds are more likely to develop mental health problems in the first place? One psychologist, Howard Liddell, wrote in 1949 that anxiety ‘accompanies intellectual activity as its shadow’ – but that doesn't necessarily mean that all brainy women are doomed to a lifetime of anxiety.
‘Creative and intelligent people tend to be deep thinkers and can therefore be susceptible to depression and anxiety’, explains Victoria. ‘This isn't a proven link though, and often other factors play a role, like long working hours and unclear boundaries between work and home.’
For 28-year-old Sue, the pressures of completing a PhD hit her mental health hard. ‘I usually consider myself to have great mental health, but last month I officially quit my PhD in my final year due to the onset of some kind of depression/anxiety combo’, she says.
Over the last year, Sue's mental health problems made it increasingly difficult for her to leave the house. ‘I wouldn't go into university because I was sitting on the bedroom floor crying. Nothing was ostensibly wrong, I just couldn't do it’, she explains.
And she isn't alone in having struggled – there's a growing mental health crisis in Britain’s universities, affecting undergraduates and academics alike. ‘Apparently it's really common in academia’, Sue says.
‘It's sort of accepted that you're supposed to be stressed, because a PhD is hard work. Having never suffered any mental health issues previously, it was easier for me believe that I was suffering because I wasn't good enough to do a PhD, not that I was under too much pressure.’
Entrepreneur Patricia, who recently turned 30, puts her lifetime of mental health struggles down to her introversion. ‘I think a lot of creative, intelligent people like me are introverts and therefore face mental health issues’, she says. ‘We're often misunderstood, and being creative can be a way of “compensating” for our introversion – by crafting, writing, singing, painting, you name it’.
Patricia is in the process of starting a new business as an 'Agony Auntie' and says that at 30 she's ‘finally happy’. As well as allowing her to express her introverted self, Patricia believes that being creative has served a therapeutic role in dealing with her mental health struggles: ‘even though society makes me feel incomplete or even undeserving at times, by focusing my energy on something creative I'm able to heal myself every day’.
Like her, 25-year-old Amy* sees deep thinking and mental health as a two-way street. ‘My frustrations tend to come when I perceive injustice in a situation, and I do wonder whether my analysis of situations leads to my mental health challenges’, she says. ‘But when I am in a particularly frustrated state I have found that a way of coping with my feelings is to get creative. Although it's not always the most beautiful art ever, it is expressive in ways that I think I could never be when I'm feeling more normal.’
Even for the less artistically inclined, the soothing power of mindfulness colouring books and origami has made art therapy mainstream in recent years. ‘Lots of people who experience mental distress say that creative activity is cathartic and makes them feel human again’, Victoria says. ‘It's mindful and creates a sense of flow, where physical and mental health are in harmony, which is good for your mental health.’
Clearly there is some kind of link here, but was Sylvia Plath brilliant because of her mental illness? Obviously not. Did Stephen Fry's brilliance cause his bipolar disorder? No. And while it's fascinating to think that my over-analysing, introspective mind might play a role in my depressive and anxious tendencies, it's also about time we got over the idea that suffering results in some kind of creative or intellectual brain magic which somehow justifies the deep pain a person is experiencing.
‘Mental illness doesn't have to be present for creativity to exist’, highlights Louie Rodrigues from mental health charity Rethink. ‘We know that many of our supporters have channelled their experience through art, but the idea of a 'tortured soul' artist is an outdated myth. Mental illness affects one in four of us, so anyone can be affected – whether they're creative or not’.
She adds: ‘These kinds of myths detract from the realities of mental illness – that the symptoms, the stigma, and trying to get the right support can be difficult and distressing. Everyone's experiences of mental illness will be different; the important thing is that people get the support they need, when they need it, so they can live their life the way they want to live it’.
If you are affected by mental health problems, speak to your GP – or you can contact Rethink's advice line on 0300 5000 927, or visit rethink.org/advice
*Some names have been changed
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