A couple of days ago, I discussed the topic of mental illness and creativity with a wonderful colleague, and I thought I would add a few of my thoughts regarding the subject to my blog.
About Our Obsession With the Tortured Genius
I always have so many thoughts and feelings when “creativity and mental illness” comes up somewhere. Well, not just feelings, also a professional opinion. Mental illness impacts creatives/creativity in devastating ways (and the effects are near always devastating—even high creative output, which isn’t a given, isn’t really a payoff for the suffering).
The Myth of Mental Illness and Creativity Endures Because We Want It To
I can’t remember where I read the above quote, but it always sums it up for me: To some, there’s seemingly nothing quite as romantic as the idea of the tortured genius/artist. There’s also nothing quite as toxic as romanticising despair and sadness, without ever having experienced or witnessed the catatonia-like-state of the severest forms that isn’t at all like “feeling sad” or “feeling intensely/too much”.
It’s such a complicated issue, and while certain associations between creativity and mental health struggles seem plausible from all we know, I always have such problems with the almost desperate attempt to establish causative links. From many years of study, I would assume that most creatives are creative despite their mental illness, not because of it.
As an example: People with mood disorders often lose all creative spark when they go through a depressive episode, because that’s what depression does—it’s in the word. And it’s coming out of the depressive episode (and entering hypomania in the case of bipolar disorder—the poster child for the “creativity/mental illness”-link that some like to bring up) that usually gives a creative boost with high productivity/creative output.
No, This Is Not How Creatives Tick
What frequently irks me is said romanticising of mental illness in creative communities, or the subtle suggestion that this is just “how creative people tick”. I could give you several examples from both personal and online conversations, when people assumed this to be the case. Or when they tried to “cheer up” someone who was confessing to feeling down, overwhelmed or blocked with: ”I know it’s hard, but at least know that this is what makes you creative, and you are in good company because we all feel the same from time to time.”
Comments like this aren’t just minimising the person’s experience (even if they are well-meant), they are also quite simply untrue: Not everyone feels like this, being creative doesn’t make you mentally ill, and being mentally ill doesn’t make you more creative by default. There is no strong scientific evidence that suggests a causative link between creativity and mental illness, or between mental illness and higher creative output. Even for bipolar disorder and schizotypy, it’s not nearly as clearcut as some assume, although we have stronger associations/correlations.
People like to quote the same, oftentimes decades old books and papers (like those by Andreasen and Jamison) to prove their point, but we know more now than we did over 30 years ago.
Another problem is study sample-size: People are very enamoured with Andreasen’s research into writers, but she looked at a very small sample of people who self-reported in interviews, plus her study wasn’t blinded and had a host of other methodological issues. And the same holds true for many, many studies that are skewed towards assuming a positive correlation. It’s all a bit meh. If anything, I’d say we actually have more proof that higher creative output is linked to periods of comparably good mental health, even in individuals with struggles.
And if you would really like to look into it: I will leave a reading list for you at the bottom of this post. But buyer beware: You are well advised not to get all your information from one person (this includes me), because there is a, in my view, worrying trend to put all eggs into one “curation basket” these days. This is not the curators’ mistake, but that of the consumer who becomes a bit too reliant on the availability of information from people they like/trust. But that’s a subject for another blog…
What is Creativity Anyway?
It all starts with one problem: What is creativity? And who counts as “creative”? There are no objective measures, no hard-and-fast-rules, that’s where the whole thing already falls down. While creativity is certainly linked to divergent thinking patterns, divergent thinking doesn’t necessarily lead to mental illness. That’s like assuming neurodiversity is an illness, or will automatically lead to illness, and I hope people are slowly coming out of that wrong belief.
I’ve studied and applied quite a few psychometric tests related to creativity, and while measures and scales for creativity exist (like the Torrance test), none of them are universally accepted across the board because creativity is such an abstract concept. If you wanted to be flippant about it: Psychometrics are giving creativity the slant that researchers want it to have. And while psychometrics certainly aren’t developed in a scientific vacuum, the arbitrary element is still there—like in many other psychological tests. The closest we come to some sort of measurement are probably divergent thinking tests. But still, even those are not really measuring the core of creativity, or what it means, because honestly: I don’t think that’s entirely possible.
All we do is assign variables, and what variables depends a lot on approach and discipline: The psychoanalysts do it differently from other psychologists, who do it differently again from neuroscientists. And even the variables can be problematic to pin down (as an example: How do you define “usefulness” unambiguously?). It’s challenging, and that’s why it’s so hard to meaningfully connect the dots in this context.
Internal or External?
We also can’t separate any of this from sociodemographics: If we wanted to find a link between poor mental health and creativity, it isn’t necessarily the creative process as such (mentioned exceptions aside).
While it is true that people who work in creative industries report anxiety and depression significantly more often than the general population, which is worrying in its own right (with the caveat that they often self-diagnose in the available studies), they also report why:
It is the working conditions they find themselves in, like extensive stress and pressure with no recuperation periods, unsettledness, experiencing rejection on a constant basis, reliance on family to stay afloat, or having to work several jobs to make ends meet because the arts still don’t pay like other industries (and I know that numerous other industries also don’t, but the figures for the creative arts speak for themselves), bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment—the list goes on.
So one also has to argue that the link between creativity and mental illness is a sociodemographic one: The life circumstances of people working in the creative industries.
To bring this full circle: We don’t have to “suffer to be creative”. We also have to stop perpetuating the stereotype that we will lose our creativity if we start treatment. While it is true that certain medications can influence your creative output (I attached a study about that, too), there are often alternatives. However, these fears are highly enmeshed because the stereotypical tortured genius trope still exists in droves. Furthering these beliefs is harmful, and it needs to stop – for the sake of people with and without mental illness.
© Petra Borzynski 2022
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