Much has been said and written about the connection between mental illness and creativity, particularly celebrity mental health. Many of our favorite artists, musicians, and comedians tend toward absurdity, loose- thinking, lowered inhibition, immodesty, and flair.
This informs their work and inspires fandom.
The link between madness and creative ingenuity has been a long-standing interest of mine. There are plenty of artists and celebrities who have struggled with mental health problems, addiction, trauma, and eventual terrestrial passage via suicide or overdose. It’s a subject which has been discussed extensively, and it encompasses the likes of Vincent Van Gough, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and Robert Schumann.
Famous contemporary examples abound as well—Kurt Cobain, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Cory Monteith, Michael Jackson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Brian Wilson, Amy Winehouse, etc. etc. Just Google “celebrities and mental illness” if you don’t believe me. After all, if it’s on the internet it must be true.
More and more artists have incorporated their struggles with mental illness into their work, or spoken out directly about it. A poignant example for me was Childish Gambino’s video for the song 3005 when he alludes to loneliness, fear of the future, the insincerity of friends and family, and asks to just hold his hand if he loses his ‘mental.’
The song, perhaps not so subtly, made me wonder if he struggled with depression. Upon an internet search on the issue, I came to find he additionally opened up about feeling depressed and insecure on his Instagram page.
Perhaps part the result of working in the mental health field with a personal interest in pop culture, I am made constantly aware of the various actors and musicians who share their mental health struggles, or who have their struggles posthumously shared for them. While this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction for raising awareness, erasing the stigma against mental illness, and promoting early identification and treatment, the constant barrage of newsfeeds and tweets can become numbing.
“More and more artists have incorporated their struggles with mental illness into their work, or spoken out directly about it.”
The impetus for putting this piece together came from the night I happened to see Jay Pharoah perform stand-up comedy. In between his hilarious impersonations, for which he has gained fame and acclaim; insights on race relations; and general commentary on his own life; Charlotte, North Carolina (where he was performing); and society, he referenced a recent Huffington Post interview in which he discussed his struggles with depression and suicidal ideation as an adolescent.
He alluded to being relentlessly bullied and alienated as a kid. Jay was apparently overweight until about the age of 17 and credits his relationship with his mother as the primary protective factor during this time; as she was aware of the potentially self-destructive path he was contemplating in order to cope with the social alienation.
He then went on to mock all the publicized efforts to end bullying, making the case that we should actually condone bullying because it led to the likes of people such as himself, who rose above it, in spite of it, and knock the ignorant bullies to their rightful place in the world…Or, he noted, the victims go on to be suicidal. Many artists have had aversive life experiences and presumably used humor, art, or acting as an escape, coping mechanism, and method for gaining mastery and self-expression. The timeliness of the comedy show reiterated the importance of the topic, and here I am pecking away.
“Many artists have had aversive life experiences and presumably used humor, art, or acting as an escape, coping mechanism, and method for gaining mastery and self-expression.”
There are essentially two camps on this topic in relating ‘art and madness’: Those who believe that the true creative geniuses tend to be a little less stable than the rest of us, and those who believe mental illness is debilitating and detrimental to creative talent; that creativity is a sign of mental health.
Then there is the intersection of creativity and the lifestyle associated with those who dedicate themselves to creative pursuits.
It becomes a chicken or egg debate since the variables are so correlated and self-perpetuating: an artistic mind might shun the more traditional standard of living, or the traditional standard of living may shun an artistic mind.
Celebrity, being another factor, potentially exposes artists to things like constant public scrutiny, paradoxically coupled with a sense of invulnerability—and in some cases, ahem, godliness—and provides access to indulgences such as illicit drugs.
The world of celebrity may perpetuate feelings of instability—actors, musicians, and artists are people who are creative but don’t necessarily have the accountability or structure built in like a 9-5 job. You could span this theory out to other professions and pursuits.
There is no question that the way we spend our time and what we value reflects some degree of mental health.
“It’s possible that as a society we like the “crazy” and reward and reinforce it in our performers, encouraging them to up the ante.”
Similarly, there undoubtedly exists a link between propensities for thinking in that uninhibited tangential way which provides fertile ground for creative ingenuity and the flight of thought and emotional volatility that can underlie some mental health disorders, including addiction. Again, as with most things related to forming a causal association in social science, there is an interplay between nature and nurture.
Those who tend toward creative pursuits and even fame, may have a different neuronal architecture; less myelin perhaps? Passed down genetically by their creatively endowed forefathers and foremothers, artists may generally possess personalities which are inherently less bridled and more unstable than the rest of us. They may also be exposed to or seek out environments or experiences which perpetuate or exacerbate these traits. It’s possible that as a society we like the “crazy” and reward and reinforce it in our performers, encouraging them to up the ante. However, many creators also had harsh early life experiences.
It is possible in these cases that creativity is tapped into as a form of coping and resilience (research shows that expressive writing increases immune system functioning, and emerging research on posttraumatic growth suggests people can turn adversity into creative growth), or that these experiences alter brain functioning in a way that provides for a unique perspective. There is research that also suggests daily creative pursuits (writing, coloring, singing) can help channel and “put off” mental illness.
Generally speaking, people who embark on creative measures in their day to day lives tend to be more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity; they report a “greater sense of well-being.”
Researchers who study creativity have also noted the role of ‘latent inhibition’—which is how our brain filters and responds to incoming and novel information. Latent inhibition is linked with dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the reward-motivation system in our bodies. The role of dopamine is important in the creative process in that pleasure is derived from the openness to experience and identifying connections and relationships, and thus is reinforced when it is pursued.
Presumably, artists have reduced latent inhibition to the extent that they are able to see something as novel, or appreciate the novelty of something, even despite being exposed to it multiple times. This is key to creative cognition in that reduced latent inhibition allows the brain to see innumerable connections and applications between inputs, and opens the floodgates on access to information.
You never know when the most bizarre connections might spawn creative genius.
However, reduced latent inhibition can also be a slippery slope. While it can open the doors for creative thinking, not having an efficient way of attending and responding to incoming information could also lead to the cognitive storm of disorganized and overwhelming information and emotion. In the case of mental illness, reduced latent inhibition might make it impossible to filter out irrelevant or useless information—potentially leading to cognitive and emotional lability, disorganization, and fatigue. Therefore latent inhibition may illustrate one threshold between creativity and mental illness, or at least why there is a relationship between the two.
This relationship is likely moderated through protective intellectual and cognitive capacities such as executive functioning skills (i.e., planning, foresight, emotional regulation, and personality). I would speculate that another common trait of many artists is a high need for sensation seeking (what I think of as a high threshold for novelty and a propensity to feel things deeply), leading to the drive to create and experience altered states of awareness/consciousness and likely a driving force behind some of the issues with substance use and abuse linked with highly creative individuals.
“I would speculate that another common trait of many artists is a high need for sensation seeking.”
It’s also interesting to follow an artist’s creative output over the course of their career and mental state. Some artists seem to produce their greatest work when they are reportedly in the throes of mental illness, addiction, or hardship; while others struggle with both the quality and quantity when they are not well. For example, Tom Waits, who is now a teetotaler, is making some of the best music of his life; while in my opinion, Ryan Adams made far more interesting and compelling music when he was strung out and depressed—not to be an endorsement of either, but just to make a point…
It’s certainly true that hardship can inform art and be used as a method to heal, but it’s important to note that by no means does suffering from clinical debilitating mental illness contribute to creative eminence.
Research studies which have attempted to study the correlation between various mental health disorders and artists haven’t always found a great relationship. Bipolar Disorder is the strongest link but with a relatively small (8%) effect size. More interestingly though, is a finding that first degree relatives and siblings of people with schizophrenia are more likely to exhibit traits of “genius”—for example, Albert Einstein had a son with schizophrenia, and was also somewhat schizotypal and eccentric.
So are great artists really just people who are walking the tightrope between mental illness and genius? I would argue that great creative talent requires a balance between ‘insanity’ and ‘sanity.’ The loose, uninhibited, and unfiltered thinking and perception which can also be associated with thinking styles of the ‘insane’ coupled with the structure, self-control, and insight mandated by ‘sanity.’
I think many artists have organically found creativity as a way of coping with their anxieties. Without their creative pursuits, they may be more “ill,” and their accomplishments or success may initially reinforce their talents and further enshroud them from the vulnerability and stressors which can exacerbate mental illness. I feel that most people if exposed to enough stress during particularly vulnerable periods of life and the accumulation of other risk factors including a genetic predisposition could become or at least look mentally ill.
However, for some artists, celebrity itself may serve as the stressor.
“So are great artists really just people who are walking the tight rope between mental illness and genius?”
Many artists have shunned the celebrity that comes with their creative notoriety, and although they may create art for public consumption and scrutiny, they didn’t intend for their personal lives to be dissected and scrutinized.
If artists begin with an underlying anxiety or propensity for self-doubt, and channel that into creative efforts to thwart this, the fame and adoration can be puzzling and unnerving. They pursue authenticity through their art, yet have a larger than life and photo-shopped version of themselves reflected back at them. Perhaps this results in some of the more narcissistic, depressive, or antisocial tendencies of celebrities.
Thomas Pynchon, author of such lengthy and dense works as Gravity’s Rainbow, has essentially avoided being photographed since 1963. He’s become an almost mythical figure, evoking a Where’s Waldo interest for those who are convinced he lives among us, incognito or not. Bob Dylan took an extensive break from the media spotlight and has spoken openly for his dislike of exposure, specifically after his motorcycle accident in the late 60’s. Some have speculated Dylan exaggerated the extensiveness of the injuries from the accident in order to gain some reprieve.
Kurt Cobain expressed his disdain for celebrity, and his meteoric rise to fame is cited as a major trigger to his eventual self-destruction. A similar story can be found in Elliot Smith, one of my favorite artists.
Smith killed himself via knife through the heart, and like Cobain was not an aimless musician, but prolifically talented and likely would not have minded some recognition for his tenacious work. However, like many artists, he was not temperamentally suited for fame. He was insecure, self-doubting, and found the fame to be incongruent with his aspirations as an artist.
Others have lashed out in the wake of constant paparazzi coverage and social media scrutiny. I’d speculate this contributed to some public ‘breakdowns’ such as Britney Spears, Amanda Bynes, Joaquin Phoenix, Shia LaBeouf, and Charlie Sheen. Additionally, many artists have ultimately found that it may be in their best interest to avoid the spectacle of celebrity.
“If artists begin with an underlying anxiety or propensity for self-doubt, and channel that into creative efforts to thwart this, the fame and adoration can be puzzling and unnerving.”
Overall I sense that creativity is the result of an openness to experience, an instinct for novelty, exposure to some (subjective and relative) adversity, cognitive flexibility and resiliency, and some early exposure to art as a concept.
The genius factor lies in the appropriate attunement of these factors, and probably some pretty kooky first degree relatives. Many celebrities have begun to speak out about their experiences with mental health issues and mental illness, and I applaud these people sharing their stories and shedding light on how talking about their struggles can be curative in itself. For those struggling with their mental health, finding ways to explore your experience in creative ways may help you cope and overcome.