Can we link mental health to our creative selves?

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What is creativity?

Creativity happens when an individual makes new connections between thoughts or objects. It is the architect who figures out how to build a 3 story high handicap ramp and the scientist who breaks another DNA code. Creative thinkers explore the unknown, sometimes without ever needing to leave their front porch. He or she may “produce” something that has never been produced previously. Their achievements provoke us, tantalize, entertain or teach those of us whose minds are open to the experience.

Some say that creativity is unique to human beings. I don’t.

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Is there a link between mental illness and creativity?

A link between the two has been theorized. However, only a few studies were felt to have established that link. I worry that some of signs/behaviors often displayed by persons with mental illness are the same behaviors that you might see in a person described by many as “eccentric”. Creative people are often perceived as just a little bit different than the rest of us. In fact, there is no doubt that creative persons share some of the psychological processes that you might see someone in a state of madness.  Additionally, creative individuals often exhibit unusual thought processes and affect, personality treats (disorders?) and characteristic behaviors.

So what does all of this mean?

            Consider an extraordinary opera star who truly rose from the dust of ordinariness. For those who believe in a connection between creativity and mental disorders, genius cannot exist without the presence of madness.

Ever since I first started studying psychology, I was impressed by the seeming enormity of creative persons who suffered severe mental illness. I’ll give you just a few names:

  • Vincent Van Gogh-
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Ezra Pound
  • Ernest Hemingway
  • Robin Williams

Artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, composers, sculptors…. just about any over-achiever. Some suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, alcoholism, personality disorders, etc. Their illness is severe. But please consider that there are many, many more creative geniuses who are also emotionally healthy.


Does this suggest that emotional instability is key to creativity?

Perhaps for some but I believe that mental instability is detrimental to creativity. It certainly did in my experience…and I am no ‘creative genius.

For most of my life, I have suffered from Major Depression and sometimes required hospitalization in a psych unit. I may, at that point, been stripped of many things including my privacy and freedom. But I did have pens and paper and I put them to good work. From the deepest depression, I wrote my deepest, darkest, most disturbing yet illuminating poetry. I did not have the focus to write a short grocery list, yet……………??

My gloomy affect and attitude oddly lended itself to my feeling more motivated whereas just a few weeks earlier, I would not have been able to life a pen. My mood began to lift. My imagination was intact. The darkness was inspiring. The feedback I received on my dismal poetry was that it hurt too much to read it. No, I’m not a creative genius. Not even close.

I think the safest thing to say is that, yes, my journey through many years of therapy did unleash some creative abilities and interests. The subject matter for my poetry often came to me in the form of nightmares and flashbacks. Fighting off traumatic memories brought my past to the forefront. My illness may have provided me with ‘gist’ for the mill. Depression was not my friend but at times it was my inspiration.

That Old Creative Madness

So, would I have to “stay sick” to be creative

Can I try to live my life with the hopes that life itself will now provide me creative ‘gist” for my writer’s mind?

The relationship between creativity and insanity may simply be apocryphal. (defined in Merriam-Webster Dictionary, apocryphal is defined as “of doubtful authenticity:  spurious)

I am quite sure that there are musicians, writers, poets, and many more creative individuals who have led emotionally stable lives who are simply creative geniuses. A few examples, include Albert Einstein, Duke Ellington, William James and the Carl Jung. Perhaps creativity should be linked to mental health!

Even more conflict between viewpoints

               Did I need my depression in order to pump up my creative side? Is mental illness a must or is it simply incidental to the creative process? Do different types of mental illness serve as inspiration? Some believe that persons with psychotic disorders display an ability to see the world in a novel form.

Creativity is non-negotiable. Life has been hard. But it is “precisely what will help you fight the darkness of the soul and the demons of the ordinary” (Pavita et al. 2007)



K.S. Pavita, C.R. Chandrosheker and Partha Choudhury. Creativity and Mental Health: Profiles of

Writers and Musicians. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. (2007). Jan-Mar; 49 (1): 34-43.

Retrieved from:

Staff. Merriam Webster Dictionary Online. n.d. Definition of apocryphal.

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