Creativity and mental health


It’s everywhere…search Google for mental health and creativity and a whole host of famous politicians, artists, and activists can be found; each with their own history of mental health problems. Their contributions to society are well documented, but what of the subtext – their own battles with mental health problems?

As Aristotle said; “No great genius has ever existed without a strain of madness.”

How often do we acknowledge the link between ‘greatness’ and Bipolar Disorder for example? It is not a word often associated with the highs and lows of emotional dis-regulation. However, there is significant evidence to suggest that these very highs and lows may be a key ingredient in the evolution of social and change, something we all benefit from.

Sadly, many of these great historical figures, such as Winston Churchill, went undiagnosed and unmedicated; forced to seek solace in alcohol and excess. Today, however, with the advent of greater access to psychotherapy and pharmacology, it might just be time to acknowledge and salute individuals who have the potential to offer such greatness to the world. Perhaps, if there was less stigma and negative press associated with mental health problems, we could remind ourselves of the talents that may be lying dormant in many people.

I have seen such talent, intellectual and emotional, in many clients. However, I also hear of their struggles integrating at work when a mental health disorder has been disclosed. If schools taught pupils a more balanced view of mental health difficulties, perhaps we could eradicate stigma altogether and champion all forms of creativity. Similarly, if employers could look beyond the idiosyncrasies associated with exuberance and innovative minds, they might just be privileged to bear witness to the next generation of ‘greatness’.


3 thoughts on “Creativity and mental health

  1. For myself – I cringe when Bipolarity is heralded as a creative and intellectual comic-book-esque super-power. For me and a lot of my compatriots it just isn’t the case. We may be more inspired and productive whilst manic/hypomanic, but for the rest of the time we’re so UNproductive and self-destructive that we personally never benefit from the highs.

    I’m Bipolar II and medicated heavily enough that mania rarely manifests as anything other than a slight increase in energy, whether that comes as agitation or incredibly mild hyperactivity/hypersexuality. There are times I really miss the highs. Regardless of whether I was actually more creative or productive – I FELT more creative and productive, and that feeling was intoxicating. As a thinking adult though I have to recognise that my FEELINGS on my behaviour were a lot rosier than the real thing and that I’m putting an incredible strain on my life and relationships just to periodically, wilfully indulge in an illness that gives me an unrealistic view of the world.

    I’m all for breaking the stigma surrounding these brain diseases – It has become one of my primary life goals. A real problem with regards to the illnesses though is the fact that Bipolar people especially are prone to relapsing and abandoning effective medication because we come to BELIEVE that without our highs we have nothing to offer the world. Our inspiration is gone. Our flair has abandoned us. All of our talent has evaporated. These feelings can sometimes be torturous and I seriously think they’re in part a product of the romantic view of manic depression. The ‘tortured genius’ and ‘starving artist’ are tropes that a lot of people feel an irresistible pull towards because it makes them feel special.

    One of the most fundamental parts of the battle against these illnesses is our responsibility to discourage the afflicted from making a friend and ally of their illness.

    All the best,

    • Hi H&J,

      Thanks for your comment re. the above post. It is great to get feedback! I take note of your thoughts re. creativity and bipolarity and would like to take this opportunity to reply.

      Your points reflect the views of many clients who have experienced the mania associated with mood disorders and the accompanying depression that can follow a period of mania. I agree entirely with your views re. the stereotypical portrayal of the ‘tortured artist’. The price paid by those with bipolar disorder is certainly not outweighed by the intoxicating highs and altered sense of reality experienced during a manic episode.

      On reflection, ‘creativity’ was perhaps not the best word to use in this instance and I can see how this might be misconstrued as a ‘thumbs up’ to mania as a driver for resourcefulness (as the media might sometimes have us believe). It was not my intention to do so; rather, I was referring to the individual, independent of their symptoms, and their resilience to problem-solve and overcome significant barriers.

      Like yourself, many people have managed to find respite from the severe manic and depressive episodes. They too often miss the periods of heightened affect and accompanying increased productivity. However, I believe that having bared witness to the extremes of human experience, many people, with appropriate support, cite an increased sense of possibility, responsibility to themselves and others, and agency to act for the greater good.

      Many mental health practitioners have themselves experienced mood disorders and as a result have greater insight into how best to support recovery in others, often pioneering new innovative treatments. Clients will often cite that they would happily do without their symptoms but would not want to lose the insight they have acquired as a result of their experiences.

      With respect to ‘greatness’, I personally believe that this is borne out of particular life experiences, often involving significant struggles. When a mood disorder is better under the individual’s control, it is my observation that there is a certain fearlessness (not to be confused with that experienced during a manic episode), and a determination to effect change that evolves. It these qualities, in my mind, that can lead to the positive contributions many people can and do make to society.

      Best wishes,

  2. Hi Vicki

    I spoke to one of my followers recently who’s daughter refuses to take her medication because without her delusions and hallucinations she doesn’t feel special any more. She feels too normal. Not many people realise how significant a problem this is. If not for having the point HAMMERED home for me by a friend, I would have abandoned medication long ago because there was a time when I felt completely grey and flat without hypomania.

    My thrust about Bipolar Disorder being mislabelled as a super-power wasn’t really in response to any attitude you communicated, rather a point about the world at large (particularly mass media) in the context of your article. Bipolar people are all Savants, Schizophrenics are all Michael Myers, e.t.c.

    I may be too soon after my diagnosis to really see many of the benefits conferred to me by this illness. I don’t know that my insight and perceptions have been expanded by it because really, undiagnosed Bipolarity is incredibly confusing. It instilled in my some very twisted logic and corrupted thought patterns that I am still trying to filter out and eradicate.

    The contribution I want to make to humanity has it’s genesis in the fact that I met a, now close, friend who saved my life by helping me to a diagnosis. In my case it isn’t my struggle that has prompted my desire to help others, it is the selfless and TOTALLY good action that my friend took on my behalf. I want to pay it forward as many times as possible before my time is through.

    All the best,

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