The other night I was at a dinner party of writers, authors, and poets, when one of the writers said to me, “I love being around writers and talking about writerly things, I mean, we’re all a little crazy in our own way,” then flashed a smile and went on her way.
She was speaking in jest, but this brought to mind a debate that has been around for hundreds of years about the relationship between mental health and creativity. The debate began in my family one day when I was in elementary school and declared that I was going to be a writer when I grew up. My mother responded to me, “You know all writers are crazy, right?”
There have been similar thoughts throughout history. Even Socrates (who died in 399 BC) mentioned the possible relationship between mental health and creativity. Socrates and Plato wrote about the benefits of divine madness, believing it was a gift from the gods. Aristotle said, “Why is it that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry or the arts are melancholic?” In more recent times Ben Franklin said, “Talents for eloquence, poetry, music and painting, and uncommon ingenuity in several of the mechanical arts, are often evolved in this state of madness.”
However, in 2012 Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and author of best-selling memoirs An Unquiet Mind and Nothing Was the Same, has found that most people who are creative are not mentally ill and most people who are mentally ill are not unusually creative. As more research is conducted, the body of evidence that shows no positive association between psychopathology and creative professions continues to grow. In fact, many studies show that creativity is associated with coping and adaptability.
Psychological researchers continue to study the correlation between creativity and mental illness. Based on most of the results, it seems that one reason we tend to have this bias towards creative people in the USA and in the UK is due to the fact that a large part of our popular culture revolves around the arts. Many people in these countries watch television, listen to music or read every day of their lives. It is the artists who create the stories we read or watch on small and large screens, as well as the songs we listen to. Even in more historical periods, the scholars who proclaimed the benefits of divine madness were seeing works of art or watching a play or reading pieces written by people in creative occupations.
It is the artists’ aim to get you emotionally involved in their stories, music or artwork, so when something tragic happens to a well-known artist, it usually becomes news, and we become keenly aware of the incident. We notice when well-known writers, artists or entertainers have a bout with mental illness or commit suicide more so than when it happens to a lawyer or commercial real estate broker. If a person who commits suicide is in an occupation other than the entertainment industry, is not well-known, and/or does not take others down with him (such as in mass shootings), it probably won’t be made public knowledge. Therefore, we usually won’t know that it even occurred. This tendency for the members of our society to be more familiar with the fates of popular artists automatically skews our perceptions of who tends to be affected by behavioral health issues.
In essence, there are probably equal proportions of mental illness across most occupations, but the myths about a high rate of ‘madness’ within the artistic community continue to exist because the knowledge of the well-being of many artists is much more available to everyone.
So does this mean creative types are normal? Oh, hell no! Artists are unique. They look at the world through different lenses than the ordinary person, but this doesn’t mean they are mad. In fact, I like to refer to this uniqueness as channeled or controlled weirdness.
Are creative people exceptionally sensitive? Often the answer to that is a resounding yes! But artists don’t have any more (or any less) problems than the general population, they just display their thoughts and emotions more freely than the average person. And remember, creativity is useful and helpful in human coping and adaptability. So, creatives have built-in coping mechanisms which are quite helpful in dealing with challenging situations on a daily basis, and I would consider that a pretty healthy way of being.
Regardless of our occupations or natural traits, we humans are simply “Perfectly Flawed.”
Barlow, D. H., & Durand, V. M. (2011). Abnormal psychology, an integrative approach. Wadsworth Pub Co.
Jamison, K. R. (2012, March 13). In Lloyd B. Minor (Chair). Mood disorders and creativity. Presentation delivered at Mason Hall. Auditorium on the Homewood Campus of Johns Hopkins University Johns Hopkins University provost’s lecture series. Baltimore Maryland. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MOHA-_O4EI
Kay Redfield Jamison | Penguin Random House. (n.d.). Retrieved October 27, 2015, from http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/authors/14367/kay-redfield-jamison/
Koutsantoni, K. (2012). Manic depression in literature: The case of Virginia Woolf. Medical Humanities, 2012(38), 7-14. doi:10.1136/medhum-2011-010075
Kyaga, S., Landen, M., Boman, M., Hultman, C., Langstrom, N., & Lichtenstein, P. (2013). Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-year prospective total population study. 47 (2013), 83-90.
Runco, M. (2007). Creativity theories and themes: Research, development, and practice. Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press.