This is a topic that is ALWAYS up for debate. And it’s pretty controversial to boot. There has been a lot of research into whether or not mental illness makes us more creative – acclaimed US psychologist and author Kay Redfield Jamison released an entire book exploring the subject (Touched With Fire if you’re interested). But the upset that can come from assuming this connection is understandable – because illness is illness and at the end of the day, nothing about it is fun.
Redfield Jamison is somebody who has herself struggled with bipolar disorder, so she’s not coming at it from a purely professional perspective – she has that all important lived experience perspective too. But it’s not a straight forward question with a straight forward answer – which is probably why she spends a lot of time and effort exploring the subject.
Reflecting on my own experiences, I could argue that my writing became a more serious pastime when I started exploring my experiences of having an anxiety disorder. However, regardless of whether or not those experiences added to my creativity, I certainly couldn’t write while in the midst of an anxiety lapse/relapse. In our darkest moments of mental ill health being creative, in my view anyway, is completely and utterly impossible.
But given the fact most of my writing is all about mental health, does that mean that, regardless of when I write, those experiences are what forged my creativity?
Well, as a 40-something with an A in GCSE Art and a slightly less appealing A-Level grade in the same subject, I’d say my creativity was always there. Sure, my anxiety levels went into overdrive when I was 15, but then, looking back at childhood photos, I was always a curious, creative kid. So I’m not sure that I can equate my creativity to my mental health problems.
Perhaps, in my case (and possibly in others’ too) our existing creative flair is something that is simply unleashed once recovery has given us the time and space to reflect on our more problematic experiences? It’s something that’s always been there but our experiences give us something to hook that creativity onto.
I mean, does every single person with an anxiety disorder enjoy art or creative writing? I doubt it. If 1 in 4 of us experience a mental health problem in our lives, then 1 in 4 of us would undoubtedly be extremely creative if this link was in fact true.
I know many of my friends are creative, artistic souls and many of us make our living in the arts. But it wasn’t mental illness that brought us together, it was our shared interest in culture and society, music and stand up and theatre.
So while I believe that there is something in how we use our experiences of mental health within our creative pursuits, I don’t believe it is what makes us creative. An artist might have a muse – but that muse isn’t necessarily the reason they became an artist.
I am sure in some cases there are clear links but, for me anyway, I’m not convinced that my creativity wouldn’t stand up if I hadn’t experienced panic attacks and terror. I just think the content of the creativity might be different.
As a teenager I remember complaining to my A Level art teacher that I wouldn’t be a good artist because nothing bad had ever happened to me. Indeed, I did end up with a crappy D in Art – but that was more to do with Lambrini and late nights than it was to do with mental illness.
And those Lambrini and late nights triggered many a panic attack over the years…
We are who we are, and this is made up of experiences, genes, psychology, surroundings, social opportunities and so, so much more. Mental illness I am sure plays a role – but it doesn’t make us who we are. It isn’t our whole. And we don’t need to thank it for our creative talents.
We have nurtured that talent in spite of it – not because of it.
If you’d like to read more of my writing, please do check out my first novel, The Twenty Seven Club – an exploration of mental health, friendship and music myths.