The Arts & Mental Health
I’ve played music my whole life. Everything I’ve ever done and at least half the people I’ve ever known, have been involved in the arts. I’ve played in bands, taught guitar lessons, written art columns for local papers, done concert reviews… Needless to say I know a lot of artists.
While struggling with my own mental health I’ve developed a habit of noticing when fellow artists are in the same boat. And boy does it seem there are a lot of us in this boat.
I remember learning about Kurt Cobain’s suicide following years of depression and substance abuse. The psychological horrors of Edgar Allan Poe’s life. Emily Dickinson’s agoraphobia. Van Gogh’s ear. Countless friends and collaborators suffering disorders from anxiety to ADHD. Plus, great art often “sings the blues” as it were. Distress makes a better show than contentment. It can seem at least 70% of all musicians/painters/writers/etc. are mired in psychological despair.
The idea is not fresh. According to Wikipedia the notion of a link between madness and creative genius goes back to ancient Greece.
Mental illness has a long history of being sensationalized and even sometimes glorified in the media. Musicians, actors, and other celebrities are commonly highlighted (or identified) by their psychological problems.
Art itself has a mixed track record on mental health portrayal. Many powerful movies show mental illness for what it is: a serious life problem which ought be remedied.
But disorders are sometimes portrayed as a benefit rather than a disease. It’s a troubling inverse to the silence and shame of mental health stigma. Disorders like depression and substance abuse are subtly (sometimes not-so-subtly) aggrandized. Whether or not this is the goal of any given artist, it certainly doesn’t paint an accurate picture.
Academic studies have been done on possible links between creativity and mental health. Overall they achieved mixed results. Different studies focused on different aspects; some studies were on the brain itself while others regarded specific disorders and how they correlate with creativity. Results seem to reinforce that creative people suffer disproportionately from mental illness.
Indeed the statistics might hold up. However the truth is not so simple. For example one study suggested creativity is greater during positive moods. It may counter the “insanity makes for great art” argument used by so many to explain the genius of troubled artists like Michael Jackson or Ernest Hemingway.
Criticism towards these studies challenge a “mad genius” trope. The arguments come from a few angles. According to one, while creativity may thrive in happiness rather than depression the stressors of a career in the arts (social pressure, low income, etc.) might causally affect an individual. Another argument claims the age-old stereotype of the “mad genius” has so deeply ingrained itself in society that mentally ill people are attracted to artistic paths.
In one article, a psychologist declared any linkage between creativity and mental disorders “pretty well debunked.” Other psychologists have identified problematic research and inconsistencies in these studies.
Whether creativity stems from psychological disorders or artists already suffered before following a creative path, we still encounter obstacles to mental health.
It sounds cliche but as a professional artist I can verify one sad truth: arts have never been a great way to make a living. Of course there’s Kanye West, there’s Ariana Grande, but then there’s everyone else with way less money. When treatment is stacked upon rent, food, gas, insurance, bills…it usually gets blown off. I’ve seen it happen. But there have been developments on this matter. The advent of online fundraising provides a viable way for artists to solicit patrons’ support. It seems every week I notice a Kickstarter for musicians battling depression or crippling anxiety. Sympathetic fans often come through to assist the sufferers and their families.
Another mental health problem artists face is the aggrandizing of serious conditions. Some misled creatives believe psychological distress is a precursor, or necessary evil, to artistic creation. We must transform that mindset and realize artists can be – indeed, most are – healthy, happy people following a meaningful life path. One mustn’t suffer mental dysfunction for any sort of art.
So what are the disorders most associated with creatives? The main culprits seem to be depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Each of these can badly disrupt life and relationships. As far as I’m concerned, no art is worth that kind of pain. I’ve gotten treatment for my psychological problems and currently play in two bands, record my own music, write articles and short stories, and pursue countless other creative endeavors. What I’m trying to say is, it made absolutely no difference on my output. Only that I’m happier now while out-putting it.
If you are an artist suffering from bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia, or any mental illness, please seek help from a professional psychologist/psychiatrist.
Note: For assistance with behavioral health issues, contact us at 305-740-3340 or schedule an appointment with BregmanMD.
Grand, Daniel (2018, July) The Problem With Studies Claiming Artists Have Higher Rates of Mental Illness. The Observer. Retrieved on March 1, 2019 from https://observer.com/2018/07/psychiatrists-say-studies-linking-artists-and-mental-illness-are-flawed/
Rothenberg, Albert (2015, March) Creativity and Mental Illness. Psychology Today. Retrieved on February 27, 2019 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-explorations/201503/creativity-and-mental-illness
Wikipedia contributors. (2019, March 1). Creativity and mental illness. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 00:46, March 6, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Creativity_and_mental_illness&oldid=885590052