Creativity and Mental Illness: Two Sides of the Same Coin?

An original piece of mine

I have long been interested in the connection between creativity and mental “illness.” I put “illness” in quotes as I have serious reservations about using this term. As an artist, my whole life I have found solace in my art. As a child I would draw for hours on reams of computer paper my mom would bring home from work. I could be shy and quiet at times but in art I found my voice, clear and true.

I also suffered from social anxiety, digestive disorder and frequent nightmares. At the age of 12, I developed a stomach ulcer and was put on an antacid and anti-anxiety medication. I remained medicated into my early twenties for anxiety and recurrent major depression.

I continued with my art up through high school and even went to a local art college for a year before following my heart to study psychology. Although I still struggled mentally, I enjoyed immense happiness and creativity and excelled in my studies, eventually earning a master’s degree in psychology.

Over the years, I watched my own struggles mirrored in the creative community as we lost one after another creative genius: Heath Ledger, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams to name a few.

What is that snuffs out these flames that burn so brightly in our lives? I am not satisfied with the old idea of “tortured genius.” No, there is something else that plagues these artists, singers, actors and comedians. It is not merely an appetite for excess or uncontrollable emotions, there is a connection between our imagination and our destruction.

When I was looking up synonyms for creativity, I found that the only antonym for the word was “reality.” Similarly, when I looked up synonyms for inspiration, I found the opposite word “depression.” Could it be that inspiration and depression are two sides of the same coin? Does true creative genius run up against reality? If reality is full of prejudice, hate, injustice and insatiable consumerism, where does creativity live and thrive?

Perhaps our creative voices are heard on the stage, seen painted on the canvas or written on the page. Perhaps we struggle to be seen and heard in our own lives by the people we love or even when we look in the mirror.

I do not believe this phenomenon to be restricted solely to the social realm. I believe there is also a neurological basis for this connection. After all, the same brain structures and neurotransmitters involved in our “illnesses” are also involved in our ability to convey emotion through creative means.

The best part of this dialogue is the hope it brings. With a greater understanding of the link between creativity and mental dis-ease, we increase the chances for satisfying lives among those who are gifted creatively. An increase in understanding will also increase our compassion for our fellow human beings and our ability to see every person as complete, vibrant and essential to the whole scheme.

Thank you for reading.

‘Til next time.


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