Throughout history, many creative people have reached untimely deaths linked directly to a mental illness. Recently we lost Chester Bennington (Linkin Park), another musician who lost the battle against depression.
Artists across all mediums often draw from their own trials and suffering to create their art. But not all those with a mental illness create, and not all creators struggle with mental illness. Is the connection a coincidence, or is there something scientific that ties creativity and mental health to one another? Can one have an effect on the other?
Do You Need a Mental Health Disorder to be Creative?
In his article for Scientific American, Scott Barry Kaufman explains that the link between creativity and mental health may not be what we expect. “The oft-cited studies by Kay Redfield Jamison, Nancy Andreasen, and Arnold Ludwig showing a link between mental illness and creativity have been criticized on the grounds that they involve small, highly specialized samples with weak and inconsistent methodologies and a strong dependence on subjective and anecdotal accounts” (Kaufman).
In fact, a variety of studies on the subject discovered that creative activity, even as a hobby, can make you “…more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by [your] activity. Those scoring high in everyday creativity also reported feeling a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to their classmates who engaged less in everyday creative behaviors” (Kaufman).
Kaufman explains more brain function equals higher rates of creativity, as we filter out less information and instead transform it into art. But you don’t have to struggle with mental illness in order to open your mind to more novel ideas. In his article for Psychology Today, Albert Rothenberg describes several important distinctions between healthy and unhealthy creativity.
“…mental illness symptoms—compulsions, obsessions, delusions, panic attacks, depression, and personality disorders-deviate in stereotyped and frequently banal ways, whereas creativity involves novel and rich results.
A common claim is that extreme euphoria and productivity are features of both creative work and bipolar illness. With the illness, however, these features are involuntary, devoid of judgment, and distorted, whereas creative artists’ productivity is purposeful, and euphoria results almost always from exceptional accomplishment.” (Rothenburg)
Both Kaufman and Rothenburg point out that artists are often suffering, but that that suffering can come from lack of recognition, poverty, or any other number of struggles that have little or nothing to do with their mental health.
Rothenburg lists just some artists throughout history who showed no evidence of illness, including “Czeslaw Milosz, Henry Moore, Sigrid Undset, Jane Austen, Anton Chekhov, George Eliot, John Milton, [and] Johann Sebastian Bach…” (Rothenburg). The list of artists without a disorder is much larger than those with one. In other words, artistic pain does not require a mental illness, and in fact anyone can become an artist.
Creative Outlets For Improving Mental Health
If creativity were a direct result of mental illness, then practices such as art or music therapy would exacerbate rather than alleviate symptoms.
However, creative outlets have helped people more and more who are suffering–giving them a healthy outlet for their increased brain activity. But once again, the link is more complicated than it initially seems. In fact these types of therapy work for a multitude of issues, including trauma, addiction, and a variety of mental illnesses and disorders.
Art and music therapy allow patients to express themselves in possibly new ways. They provide a safe, low-risk environment for patients to show how they feel, even if they can’t put it into words. Turning to an artistic medium or learning a new skill can help those battling addiction to replace their dangerous habits with healthy ones. Some students with ADD or ADHD find that knitting or crocheting during lectures can help them remain focused on the content of the class while their hands are occupied on a repetitive task.
Journaling is another creative outlet to help work through an illness or trauma. Writing down your dreams, feelings, and/or thoughts helps clear your mind at the beginning and/or end of the day. It can help you keep track of things like taking your medication or elements of your life that you know affect your mental health.
Currently, a method called “bullet journaling” has become massively popular. While the method began as a simple system for organizing your time, it has now blossomed and been personalized to track any element of your life. You can start with spreads or templates you find online, and then customize or change them completely to fit your needs (Buzzfeed). If a physical journal feels like too much pressure, or an analog system doesn’t work with your lifestyle, there are plenty of apps or ways to customize your phone to do the same things.
Theatre can also be used as therapy. It is often applied for teenagers or prison inmates, to allow them to step into someone else’s perspective and develop better empathy for their fellow human. It can also allow the patients to express themselves in new ways, or feel more free to share their emotions as they are playing a part, which provides a level of separation they would not otherwise have. Some of these principles are applied in traditional therapy, when a patient takes part in role play exercises.
Applying the Creative Outlet in Everyday Life
You don’t have to be in therapy in order to use creativity to better your mental health. Taking up a creative hobby can be part of your everyday life, and even people with creative jobs are encouraged to experience mediums different from their own.
Some people may not find their job fulfilling, and adding a creative skill or project to their life can change how satisfied they are with their life overall. Looking at things through new lenses can help exercise your creative muscles and apply some of that extra brain activity in a productive and measurable way. When you spend time creating something new, you have something to show for it, and you can watch your skills change and grow as you continue.
If you are in therapy, but think heightened creative activity might help you, talk to your doctor(s) about it. They may be able to help you choose your outlet, or help you focus your creative task into measurable goals related to your treatment.
For example, a musician may be encouraged to sign up for open mic nights in order to push themselves out of their comfort zone. This may or may not be the right path to follow, as creative work can lead to rejection and might be counterproductive to your recovery.