Creativity and Mental Illness


School starts soon and this semester I will teaching one of my favorite classes, Art Therapy with Adults with Mental Illness. The class  covers the history of treatment of mental illness, from asylums to various means of reducing symptoms to deinstitutionalization to current therapies. I love teaching this class because I find the subject matter so fascinating. It reminds me of how far we have come in our understanding of mental illness and best practices and how far we have yet to go.

One topic of the class is the question of how mental illness and creativity are intertwined. Does having a  mental illness predispose one to greater heights of creativity? Or does being a creative person lead to greater frequency of mental illness?  There are many examples of artists who struggled with symptoms of mental illness: Vincent Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keefe, Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Michaelangelo, and Joan Miro to name a few. And these are just visual artists, there are many musicians, writers and other creative types who fill out this list. Did these artists channel their internal psychological experiences into their work? No doubt they did, but did this make them more creative than they would have been had they not been dealing with their symptoms? And did the artmaking itself intensify their symptoms?

I will take Frida Kahlo as an example as her work  strongly typifies the entanglement of internal struggles with her creative output. As a young woman, Kahlo was in a horrific accident which almost killed her and left her infertile. She spent many months recuperating in a full body cast. Her father was a photographer and she always had an interest in the arts, but it was during this forced bed rest that she began painting. Her mother set up a mirror over the bed so that Kahlo could study her likeness and paint self-portraits. Throughout her career, Kahlo painted images which captured her physical and  psychic pain. Her husband’s infidelities (and her own), her inability to bear a child, her physical infirmity-all were immortalized in paint. Kahlo struggled with depression and physical pain, which unfortunately lead to significant substance abuse. Going back to the original question-did Kahlo’s symptoms lead her to be a more creative person? Or did being a creative person intensify her symptoms? What would her artwork have looked like if she had not suffered from mental illness and substance abuse?

The rates of suicide, bipolar illness and major depression are actually much higher amongst artists. To me, this means that this is a population that deserves our focused attention for treatment, understanding and support. In a way it doesn’t matter whether being creative leads to mental illness or vice-versa. The fact of the matter is that many creative people deal with mental illness in all its many facets.

In my next post, I will discuss the role that art therapy can play in the treatment of adults with mental illness.

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