“Many people actually want to have a diagnosis of bipolarism, you know. It’s seen as an ‘arty’ disorder. When people think of bipolarism, they think of Stephen Fry and Virginia Woolf.” I was informed of this by an A&E psychiatrist who tried to speak over me as I continued babbling about time travel and wolves, while trying to dangle stolen Christmas baubles from my hair. To an onlooker, many phrases could have been used to describe me, but ‘creative genius’ certainly wasn’t one of them.
The link between creativity and mental illness has certainly been around for a long time – Aristotle’s assertion that “no great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness,” was made in 350BC. Having been around for so long, the association seems to have entered our collective unconscious and is often accepted without questioning. It doesn’t take much of a scroll through social media to find examples of the glamourization of mental suffering. If I believed all I read this week on my Facebook timeline, I would end up equating insomnia with productivity, bipolarism with artistic flair, and depression with poetic prose.
There may well be a link between mental illness and creativity, and it is a link worth exploring, but assuming causality without enough research can be very damaging. The problem lies with assuming that mental illness in some way causes creativity. Many media discussions present it as an orthodoxy that most creatives are mentally ill, and most do this by citing famous authors or poets or scientists who have presumably suffered from mental illness. It proves very little to show that there is a prevalence of mental illness in creative careers. Most diagnoses are posthumous, and probably inaccurate. Moreover, the majority of media attention is drawn to the small selection of people who are both mentally ill and creative, which paints a very inaccurate picture of the demographics – many mentally ill people are not creative, and many creative people are not mentally ill.
“Anyone who has seen me while I am manic will know my thoughts are too scattered to draw together coherent sentences, let alone a best-selling novel or a thesis on quantum physics”
Albert Rothenberg, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University, suspects that studies which find connections between mental illness and creative careers might be picking up on something quite different. “Belonging to an artistic society, or working in art or literature, does not prove a person is creative. But the fact is that many people who have mental illness do try to work in jobs that have to do with art and literature, not because they are good at it, but because they’re attracted to it. And that can skew the data”, he said in an interview with The Guardian. “Nearly all mental hospitals use art therapy, and so when patients come out, many are attracted to artistic positions and artistic pursuits.” When actual creative processes are studied in relation to mental illness, rather than achievement in creative careers, there seems to be little relation.
Evidence suggesting that mental illness confers creativity is flimsy at best, and for the media to present it as truth is incredibly irresponsible. Sure, the ‘tortured genius’ makes for an interesting character in a film, but doesn’t get to the reality of mental illness.
The problem with this romantic notion is that it places mental illness on the level of an interesting personality quirk that confers creativity, rather than a source of suffering. Viewing mental illness in this way is harmful for people with mental illness, as it can lead to achievements being viewed as a result of a debilitating illness: ‘I could write/draw/paint like that if I had X.’ More often than not, achievement is in spite of mental illness, not caused by it. Moreover, if someone with mental illness internalises the view that they should perform well in creative pursuits, and they fail to, it can heighten the sense of diminished self worth that often comes with mental illness.
On a personal note, I’ve suffered from variety of mental illnesses, including bipolarism. Bipolarism is often considered to be strongly linked to creative achievement, but I’ve found it to be something I’ve had to work against. When depressed, my time is much more likely to be spent blankly staring at a wall rather than composing sonnets. At my worst I lose the ability to read, form sentences, and can barely muster enough cognitive function to watch children’s TV programmes. While mania is often glamourised as a euphoric flurry of ideas, each more wonderful than the next, this isn’t how it works out.
Some time ago, a six week-long hypomanic episode led me to intermit from university. Another time, I had a deadline for an article submission, but got sidetracked by the manic delusion that I could discover the Theory of Everything (completely undeterred by the fact that I struggled to grasp the basics of GCSE physics). I ended up spending the night in A&E. Anyone who has seen me while I am manic will know my thoughts are too scattered to draw together coherent sentences, let alone a best-selling novel or a thesis on quantum physics. Admittedly, before experiencing hypomania/mania myself, I did wonder whether I would write better philosophy if I was manic, after having read articles posthumously diagnosing philosophers with bipolar disorder. In reality, this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
The damage extends beyond sufferers of mental illness. Particularly prevalent in high pressure environments such as Cambridge where students are looking for ‘an edge’, some students seem to equate unhealthy habits with creative success. I have had friends tell me that Churchill and Thatcher functioned off four hours sleep a night, and have gone so far as to take stimulants to stay awake, seemingly believing that this level of sleep deprivation would aid success.
Likewise, I have heard of students taking micro-doses of cocaine or study drugs, presumably to elevate euphoria to faux-hypomanic levels. Mental illnesses are associated with unhealthy behaviours, such as a lack of sleep or poor eating habits, as well as unusual thought patterns which can also be produced by certain drugs. Associating disorders with creative success seems to contribute to people forming damaging and dangerous habits.
When the evidence is flimsy at best, mental illness should not be thought of as resulting in creativity. It invalidates the lives of most people with mental illness, who find it something they have to work against, and may contribute to unhealthy lifestyle habits. Mental illness isn’t something to be glamourised. As Van Gogh bemoaned: “Oh, if I could have worked without this accursed disease – what things I might have done.”
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