Unpacking the relationship between mental wellbeing and creativity - Artwork by  - Lex Trickett
Artwork by Lex Trickett

Unpacking the relationship between mental wellbeing and creativity

The idea of the tortured artist who is unpredictable, troubled, deranged, mentally unbalanced and not well adjusted proliferates media and normal representations of what it means to be an artistic ‘genius’. We see this in the narration of the lives of artists who have contributed tremendously towards culture—novelist and poet Sylvia Plath, abstract painter Agnes Martin, performance artist Ana Mendieta and celebrated artist Yayoi Kusama—in trying to unpack and understand their brilliance, we are quick to pin it down and account for it through their mental health struggles.

General biographies of our creative models often fail to distinguish between perceptions of mental illness and actual diagnosed illness—hearsay, gossip and theories are juicier and more alluring when explaining artists’ processes and motivations. This leaves us with far more accounts (where we link mental illness and creativity) than what is truthfully the case. The confusion is further exacerbated by the extent to which creativity is correlated with, versus caused by mental illness—especially because creativity and mental illness both involve divergences in normative processes of thought.

Mental wellbeing can be defined as “a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional wellbeing,” (Emerald Insight, 2017). Mental illness is broadly and commonly defined as a wide range of conditions that affect mood, thinking and behaviour. These include but are not limited to; clinical depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Mental health is believed to be influenced by numerous elements including genetic factors, biochemical brain imbalances, life experiences and family history. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5)—the taxonomy and diagnosis tool published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and relied upon by psychiatrists—there are as many as 297 identifiable mental health disorders.

It is important to note that contestations exist in relation to what is a mental illness vs a mental disorder—”conditions with a definite biological basis, such as schizophrenia, are usually viewed as mental illnesses, but that professionals mostly refer to a much broader category of ‘mental disorders’, which can include conditions like alcohol and drug dependence”; (Dr Gerhard Grobler South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP), in an interview with africacheck.org).

Suffering as an intrinsic component of illness

There is danger in attributing artistic ability to the dark forces of mental illness, instead of say technique, training and skilfulness. In this way, we glamorise suffering and minimise genuine physical and psychological pain.

Despite the glorified versions of how mental illness can lead to more creation, an intense suffering remains at the heart of it.

As a mentally ill person, I constantly feel like a lazy, unproductive, non-member of society. But when I’m hypomanic, I’m the main contributor to society. I’m essential, like Oprah, or memes, or Oprah memes. And for someone who’s depressed most of the time, mania is intoxicating. It makes you feel invincible, like you have the confidence of a white man who writes “I get shit done” in his LinkedIn bio, except you’re actually doing shit. For one, brief, shining moment, you feel useful—then it’s gone, and you have nothing to show for it.

San Francisco based writer Amanda Rosenberg.

In a letter to his brother Theo, Vincent van Gogh is famously quoted as writing;

I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me…

Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head… At times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse.

Art is work and art is life—the workaholism addiction

Edvard Munch—the Norwegian expressionist painter of the well-known painting The Scream—once lamented;

My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art. 

This points to the poignant and persistent belief that art and art making are God given talents inextricably linked to one’s identity and one’s life purpose. The links between one’s work and identity can lead to compulsion and obsession such as workaholism, a prevalent addiction among artists.

What is seen at first glance as devotion to work could in fact be workaholism—impossible self-imposed demands, inability to regulate work habits, an over indulgence in work to the exclusion of major life activities and neglect of family and friends with the strong belief that only excruciating handwork can lead to mastery.

Chicken and egg

When we speak of the links between mental illness and creativity, we need to consider the extent to which the art world creates conditions that make artists susceptible to mental illness.

Conditions in the arts and entertainment industry can often undermine workers’ mental health and wellbeing, with insecure contracts, low rate of pay and anti-social working hours. Further compounding harsh working conditions, performing artists are often asked to work for free, or ‘for exposure’. Maintaining a healthy sense of self can be difficult if your work, passion and skills are consistently devalued in this way.  

Cal Strode-Mental Health Foundation

Long hours, irregular sleeping patterns and increasing financial insecurity are all factors that can lead to poor mental health over time. Being and remaining an artist, can in fact be a brutal and harsh existence.

In an article for The Evening Standard – London’s local daily newspaper, Jesse Thompson writes:

You’ll pay the audition fees for drama school, just to be seen (if you can afford them that is. If not, good luck). You’ll prepare, perform your heart out, and be awarded a place. You’ll train hard for years, hoping to be spotted, and then… you’re out in the world. You’ll join the queue for auditions, trying to get work, saddled with debt, probably working other jobs to make ends meet. You’ll try to weather the knockbacks, waiting for an opportunity. You land a job, you perform every night and build a new family with your company. Twelve weeks later – it’s over. You’re unemployed, and it starts again. Searching for the next job. Who knows the next time that someone will say yes to you?

The tide is turning

In 2017 singer-songwriter Solange Knowles announced that she would not be performing at the AfroPunk Festival, which was scheduled in Johannesburg on New Years Eve of that year —the artist cited her tussle with an automatic nerve disorder as the reason for her absence. American rapper and record producer, Kid Cudi, broke the silence on his mental health struggles, inspiring fans and normalising the conversation around mental health—this spurred a frank roundtable discussion with Jada Pinkett, Willow Smith, and Adrienne Banfield-Jones on national TV.

Open and honest conversations around mental health are beginning to dismantle the persistent stigma that stains those affected with mental illness. Many artists are bringing forth their experiences and the ways in which they have suffered. They are beginning to have candid dialogue with family, friends and fans—examining and shifting the discourse.

All of this is to say that we are making progress with regards to how we view the effects of mental illness and the toll it takes on the body, on productivity, carriers, relationships and lives.

If creativity is defined as the production of something new and valuable, we do ourselves no favours by perpetuating rhetoric that indirectly contributes to illness and death. It is worth reflecting on the sombre realities of the demands of a career in the arts and how our expectations as audiences can affect artists. It is crucial to remember that illness is not a prerequisite for a successful art career—for every article linking an artist’s success to their mental wellbeing (or illness), thousands upon thousands of artists are drawing inspiration from a myriad and complex well of emotions and experiences.

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