Creativity and mental illness/wellness

Findings from a study by Swedish researchers published this week concluded that writers had a higher risk of anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse. I suspect that many writers will respond to these findings with a sarcastic ‘you don’t say’.

Last year my poem ‘Triptych’ appeared in the online magazine London Grip. The poem is a mini sequence (I’ve since rewritten it, as I tend to tinker endlessly with all my poems) which explores the last moments of three writers who committed suicide John Berryman, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath.  I’m not sure why this poem came to me out of the blue (or black), but perhaps I wrote it as a remembrance out of empathy or acknowledgement of the suffering that these three writers experienced.

As far back as Aristotle, who wrote that poets and artists have tendencies toward “melancholia”, there has been an association between mental illness and creativity.

Many research studies have concluded that writers and artists are more likely to have a mental illness and that people with certain mental illnesses, such as depression and mood disorders, appear more likely to be creative. I am interested in the links between creativity and mental illness, but I’m even more interested in how writers can ‘be healthy’ and I’ll be writing about my thoughts on this in another post.
Looking at some older research related to this topic I found some interesting questions such as

Does creativity cause mental illness?
In his book ‘Creativity and Madness: New Findings and Old Stereotypes” Albert Rothenberg concluded that there isn’t a link between mental illness and the actual process of creating. He argues that anxiety, thought disorder and depression disrupt the cognitive and emotional processes necessary for successful creativity. Interestingly, he proposes that highly creative people do better when treated for their mental illnesses.

Defying the Crowd.
Other research concluded that creative people may be more prone to mental illness if they are more vulnerable to extrinsic motivational constraints, such as interpersonal relationships. Valuing such external factors may harm poets’ mental health, because high levels of creativity require people to “defy the crowd” and ignore what other people think, producing more stress leading to a higher incidence of mental illness. I wonder if this may be a factor for women, and in particular, may have been even more of a factor in the 20th century where societal norms and expectations were even more constricting. Then there is the need to make a living of course, which can’t be underestimated as a potential area of conflict and source of stress for the potential ‘creative’.

I’m also interested in how the isolation and intensity of writing may lead to mental health problems, and I’m convinced that creative people who deny thier need to produce creative work are likely to become depressed. Research by James Pennebaker has found positive health and mental health benefits from writing–but only when the writer crafts a narrative or makes connections between thought and feelings. Kaufman theorizes that poets may not experience the same benefits from writing that other writers do because poems seldom form a narrative.  There is no data yet that proves that poetry writing isn’t beneficial. “It’s very possible that writing poetry may have kept Sylvia Plath alive longer than she would have,” he says. “One of the counterarguments is that being in poetry is a real tough (he’s American)  way to make a living. There are very few jobs that have a higher rejection rate.”

Looking more positively, it is my view (un-reasearched and unproven) that there may be more acknowledgment, acceptance and less stigma attached to mental health issues within the writing community, allowing writers to feel less isolated than they would in other walks of life. Perhaps the internet with its blogs and social networks can be fundamental in helping create communities to counteract the more unhealthy aspects of the necessary isolation of the writer.


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