Is There a Link Between Mental Illness and Creativity?

Last week, I was invited to do an interview with Kerry K for her blog. Kerry asked me some interesting questions about the connection between artistic talent and mental illness.

medium_8384110298Brainpickings recently posted an article about Nancy Andreasen’s The Creating Brain, in which Andreasen discusses her findings around the occurrence of mental illness in creative people. There have also been numerous studies conducted based on the theory that creativity correlates with psychiatric conditions.

The majority of these studies have concluded that creative people, on average, tend to experience higher levels of depression and mood disorders. These results don’t surprise me. Andreasen’s ultimate conclusion that creative people create despite of mental illness and not because of it doesn’t surprise me either.

As someone who has suffered from anxiety disorder and depression my entire life – and has wanted to be a writer for almost the same amount of time – I have some understanding of the complexities around this subject. For me, mental illness has done many things for my creativity:

1. It’s inspired me to write and has given me material to write about.

2. It’s caused me to be more sensitive, observant, and empathetic to the world around me, which I then feel compelled to express and convey through writing.

3. It’s prevented me, many times, from producing and succeeding the way I would like to. Depression tells me I’m not good enough, that I’m wasting my time, and that I might as well give up. Not giving up is a constant, perhaps even daily, battle.

I don’t think that mental illness correlates with creativity or relates directly to artistic talent. I think that people with mental illness are more drawn toward creative expression because they have something to say. Mental illness also has the potential to make someone more sensitive and internal, which in turn might bring new power and perception to his or her work.

People with depression in particular tend to be very self-aware, while anxiety disorder might make someone more observant and analytical. Personally, years of therapy have helped me gain a deeper understanding of myself and others, which is beneficial to my memoir and fiction writing.

That said, you can have all of these traits and characteristics without a mental illness. There are many insightful, self-aware creatives who don’t suffer from a diagnosable psychological disorder. Creative pursuits like art, writing, and music might attract people with mental illness, but it’s not a prerequisite for talent.

Mental illness can give you unique material and insights, but it comes at the cost of having to fight and overcome that same illness in order to express those insights to the world. Depression in particular has a tendency to get in someone’s way when it comes to the traits most important to successful creatives: persistence, confidence, and resilience.

Of course, people without depression can easily suffer from problems with confidence and persistence, especially in a world that is so competitive and challenging when it comes to succeeding in creative fields. Some people might even find themselves more exposed to depressed and anxious thoughts in pursuit of their creative dreams. Clinical depression might just add an extra nudge in the direction of hopelessness, negativity, and the desire to give up.

If I could get rid of my experiences with mental illness in the past and the present, I’m honestly not sure whether I would. I appreciate some of the insights I’ve gained, the experiences I’ve had, and the people I’ve connected with because of my lifelong struggles with anxiety disorder and depression. It’s also given me lots of material to write about and stories to tell. I would, however, appreciate not having constant feelings of anxiety and depression get in my way when I try to create and share what I’ve created.

What do you think the link is between creativity and mental illness? 


(photo credit: A Health Blog via photopin cc)

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2 replies to “Is There a Link Between Mental Illness and Creativity?”

  1. Pj says:

    It does seem, when one thinks about it, there may be a link. Though then the question arises: what does it portend when the world we live in considers the drivers for creativity to be a mental illness?

    It’s an interesting topic of research, but I think it says more about our conceptualization of mental illness than it does about the sources of creativity.

    1. Alana says:Author

      Very true, Pj. The definitions and diagnosis of mental illness is another issue, and one that should be looked at in this context as well.

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