Art as a Survival Tool Series: I

Creativity and Mental Illness
Embracing a Life ‘Touched with Fire’

This blog is the first in a series of five on Art as a Survival Tool, blogs that examine the crucial role art plays in the fulfillment of the human experience.

VanGogh’s Self-portrait with Bandaged Ear, 1889

VanGogh and his ear. Marilyn Monroe and her everything. Mozart. Robin Williams. Nina Simone.

The history of performing arts includes a long list of wildly talented artists whose lives, affected by mental illness, cantered along an erratic, inspiring road to a tragic end. The romantic notion of the “tortured artist,” a genius driven by madness or insanity, gripped the public imagination of artists, creating, by the late 20th century, a tangled, unproven belief that mental disorders play a root cause in high creativity.

While headlines reported that a recent study found a genetic link between creativity and mental illness, the headlines misrepresented the data, which only found that creative people—such as performing artists and entrepreneurs—are more likely to be predisposed to mental illness by genetic variants. In sum, it’s a weak link although helpful in advancing the overlap between creative brain functions (ingenuity, for example, or intense curiosity coupled with a desire to express it to other people) and their relationship to mental disorders, which are typically characterized by an inability to control brain processes like impulsivity. According to the study, published in Nature Neuroscience, a correlation exists between creative people and people diagnosed with mental illness. However, the study does not confirm a direct genetic link between creative genius and mental illness.

Perhaps, for now, it’s helpful to think of creativity and mental illness as roommates as opposed to conjoined twins.

The relationship between creativity and mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, remains a fascinating one, and bipolar comedian Joshua Walters discusses his “mental skillness” resulting from the “hypomanic edge” of his condition that drives him to do something everyone else thinks is impossible. Walters credits writer John Gardner with coining the term “hypomanic edge” to explain how to identify the gifts of an unordinary, unorthodox mind. In her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison links attributes of great artists like Virginia Woolf with bipolar disorder, citing a person living with the creative drive as touched with fire, an internal burning to express which may consume the person who lives with it.

The need, then, becomes reframing the notion of the tortured artist to a non-judgmental acknowledgement of the relationship between creativity and mental illness. Great artists do not need to be struggling with sanity in order to be great, but for many who do—and will—living with the disease depends upon their ability to creatively express themselves. We cannot overstate the importance of the performing arts in providing a vital function for millions of people world-wide and for allowing creativity—and madness—to have a productive outlet.

In the spring of 2015, pop singer Demi Lovato took bold moves to advocate for de-stigmatizing mental illness when she launched a media junket to tell her story of struggling with bipolar disorder and finding recovery. Her initiative, Be Vocal: Speak Up for Mental Health, encourages people to talk about mental illness, advocating for a supporting outlook on mental health issues and empowering people to make a difference.

"Heart Attack" singer and former Disney actress Demi Lovato
“Heart Attack” singer and former Disney actress Demi Lovato

Neuroscientist Adrienne Sussman, in her article for the Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, notes that artists’ ability to see in alternative perspectives and present them in unexpected ways benefits audiences as well : “By altering images in particular ways,” she writes, “art can have a more powerful impact on the visual and limbic brain areas than reality—causing an emotional resonance, a sense of meaning and beauty that the real world rarely produces.”

After all, states neuroscientist Dr. Nancy Andreason, whose work centers around studies of creativity, “people with mental illness enrich our lives. There’s so much stigma attached, but if you think about it, we wouldn’t have had VanGogh without the mental illness.”

The association, Andreason notes, between artistic people and mood disorders and mental illness, requires attention. “It’s wrong not to support people with mental illness,” she states, primarily because humans whose minds live in the common ground between creativity and mental illness do make great contributions to advance society.

Nina Simone
Nina Simone

Performing art and participating in art allows humans to navigate the fires within—in our hearts, our souls, and our minds.

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