Lifestyle The Arts The Madness of Being Creative
The Madness of Being Creative

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Is creativity linked to certain types of mental illness? The topic has been circling parlours and lecture halls for hundreds of years. Inspired by former Freo footballer Heath Black’s comment in our August edition (Back from the Brink) – “If I was medicated [for bipolar disorder] like I am now, would I have been any good at playing AFL footy?” – Medical Forum picked the brains of medicos involved in artistic pursuits to get their view on what fuelled the fires of creation.

Famous examples

US Professor of Psychiatry Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, which analyses whether psychological suffering is linked to artistic creativity and how bipolar disorder can run in artistic or high-achieving families, is probably the best known exploration of the subject. Jamison cites Lord Byron, Vincent Van Gough, and Virginia Woolf as examples of well-known artists touched by mental illness.

“Yes [mental illness] certainly can [fuel creativity]. I think the two are inextricably linked,” said psychiatrist Dr Lynne Cunningham.

“There are certainly plenty of creative people who don’t have mental illness, but there are also many people who’ve been creative who have also had mental illness. They’re not mutually exclusive, but there are certainly plenty of examples of people who have been very creative when they’ve been experiencing severe mental illness problems.”

As both a psychiatrist and musician (Lynne plays the flute and the violin, and she is a member of the West Australian Doctors' Orchestra), Lynne is familiar with all sides of the debate and knows of many people who fit the pattern.

“There is a long list of people who had bipolar disorder – musicians, composers, and writers,” she said. She cited painter Lucien Freud and philosopher Frances Bacon as famous examples.

Helfgott_Louise_TNLouise HelfgottMaking the connection

“Mental illness in itself is often a by-product of a society that has lost its connection with its soul,” said Louise Helfgott, a WA playwright and speaker on suicide, mental well-being, and the arts at this month’s Open Your Eyes conference.

While Louise said mental illness by itself wasn’t the root of creativity, she saw a connection between highly creative people and those suffering from mental illness.

“I do believe that in some forms of creativity you need to have a heightened level of sensitivity in order to be able to create effectively – and that very sensitivity is what could make people more vulnerable to a mental illness when other environmental factors might go wrong.”

GP Dr Jenny Fay agrees that mental illness may fuel creativity. Jenny is also a musician, and last year, she coordinated an art exhibition (which happended to feature painting from neurosurgeon Prof Neville Knuckey, among others).

“I think conditions like bipolar disorder and some of the post-traumatic stress disorders can have an outlet and will often lead to an increase in work output and creative output,” she said.

“In a manic phase, especially, people with bipolar disorder will often be quite productive and really over the top and create different styles of artworks than what they would when they’re in their depressed phase.”

Medication issues

Mood stabilising medication is a prickly issue for artists with bipolar disorder who creatively tap into their mania.

“I think a lot of patients don’t like taking anti-depressant medications or treatments for bipolar, in particular, because they feel it will lessen their creative outlet,” Jenny said.

Lynne said there was a fine line to walk when medicating patients, especially those with bipolar disorder who are notorious for not taking medication as “they feel they’re not themselves”.

“You have to juggle all the factors, all the time. It’s quite complex, you’re trying to keep them relatively well, but also functioning in a way that they’re happy with, because if they’re not happy, you can keep them from having any symptoms, but then if they’re not creative or doing what they want, you’re taking away their quality of life.”

Art as therapy

There’s an argument for mental illness influencing creativity, but creative pursuits are often a form of expression or therapy for people with mental illness.

Lynne pointed out that Graylands Hospital has an arts group for patients, and once a year, the group holds an exhibition to sell their work. Likewise, Melbourne’s vast Cunningham Dax Collection comprises 15,000 creative works by people touched by mental illness or emotional trauma, collected by Dr Eric Cunningham Dax between the 1950s and the 1980s.

“I think it works both ways. Creativity helps people with mental illness, but I think that mental illness can lead to a creative outlet,” Jenny said.

GP Dr Philip Wu agrees that it “works both ways”.

“Yes, well often they use their art to express their internal feeling and mental well-being. For example, with bipolar disorder, people can create art that expresses the bipolar fluctuation in their mood,” he said.

But Philip stresses that he views creativity more as a therapeutic treatment for his patients.

“I see art as an expression of their talents. It’s also relaxing and therapeutic. I’ve dealt with patients with mental health issues and often those patients who practise art regularly (painting, music, etc.) actually manage their mental health much better. Their mood is better controlled if they practice art regularly.”

On a personal level, both Jenny and Lynne find performing as musicians to be an integral and enjoyable part to their lifestyle.

“It probably helps me in stress management and certainly in switching off from work, at times, which is a good thing,” Jenny said.

Lynne echoed her sentiments.

“My music is a huge part of my life. I don’t know where I would have been without it. I’ve certainly had times when I’ve felt terrible and the music has been the one thing that’s really made a huge difference to me,” Lynne said.


Ed. Louise Helfgott appeared at the Open Your Eyes conference in Geraldton, September 13-16. www.openyoureyes2011.com.au