Which Came First: The Artist or the Suffering? (Why do Creatives Often Have Mental Illness?)

This is a guest post from Kristen Olson, a mental health peer worker who writes the blog Lived Experiences on the topics of mental health and personal wellbeing.

This article is for discussion purposes only and should not be used as medical advice.

The ‘tortured artist’ trope has become somewhat of a chicken-and-egg situation, as many associations have been noticed between those within creative communities and those living with mental health issues.

As early as ancient Greece, philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato noticed depressive tendencies in many poets and playwrights – amongst many other artists who took their own lives. Many modern musicians such as Kanye West or Chester Bennington have great catalogs of music despite (or perhaps because of) the mental illnesses they’ve experienced. Vincent Van Gogh was known to have experienced psychosis, which scholars believe inspired much of his work.

It can be difficult to separate the person from their creative genius and their ongoing symptoms of mental illness, therefore it’s difficult to determine which influences which.

What Came First?

So which came first – the artist or the suffering? Let's examine whether emotional or behavioral instability is detrimental or advantageous to creativity – or whether artists have a greater tendency to be challenged with adversity due to their uncertain employment or inevitable writer’s block. We could also wonder whether somebody whose personality already pressures them to live up to high expectations, has a demanding work ethic, and inability to filter out ‘useless’ information might be somebody who has a predisposition to pursue a creative career.

I don’t pose this question as a problem that needs to be solved. Rather, I want to explore some of these findings, as there seem to be too many similarities between creativity and mental illness to ignore.

Art as Expression

For many, art is an outlet for expression. Therefore it is not difficult to understand why a person who has been impacted by mental health issues could benefit from using art as a way to process and understand their emotions. Creativity can be an incredibly effective method of coping with intense experiences or emotions as a tool for people who have stories to tell.

Artists are often applauded for the emotional vulnerability they infuse into their work. Therefore it would make sense that a musician would be applauded for the emotion they put into their songs. And in order to write emotional songs, there must have already been preexisting emotions to inspire the music in the first place.

Even if the music isn’t literally spelling out a person’s experiences with their emotions, music is an inherently emotional artistic medium. Nobody can deny that listening to music (no matter the genre) elicits strong feelings. The dynamic progressions of classical music can create a sense of nostalgia, wonder, and awe. The way that pop music’s bubbly melodies resolve warrants feelings of joy and excitement. Darker genres such as metal or rap have a dramatic weight to them, using heavy beats or explicit lyrics to tell stories and communicate feeling.

Whatever your preference may be, we all know music makes us feel. And what makes music so special is that it doesn’t need to be deep in order to be enjoyed.

Shared Biological Foundations of Creativity and Mental Illness

Harvard Psychologist Shelley Carson writes of how mental illness and creativity share a similar ‘cognitive disinhibition’, which describes a failure to be able to filter out ‘useless’ information, images, or ideas. Therefore, somebody who already has difficulty regulating mood or emotion may have a tendency to let creative thoughts flow without hesitation. Perspectives such as these suggest more of a biological predisposition, or a shared vulnerability, to both creativity and mental illness.

However, even though we may see a correlation, we cannot assume causation.

Not all people experiencing mental health issues become artists. Just because some people are able to use creativity as an outlet doesn’t mean that all are able to. Likewise, I don’t think it should be automatically assumed that all creative people are mentally ill.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book Big Magic: Creative Living Without Fear, “Addiction doesn’t make an artist…any artist dealing with addiction is an artist DESPITE their addiction.”

The Profile of a Creative Person

People who consider themselves to be ‘creative people’ often share a lot of qualities – although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what those are. Often it’s a desire to be a storyteller in some way, or that they feel emotions to a depth that demands they bring them to the surface. I also wonder if creativity can be a result of a kind of loneliness, driving the person to spend more time with their work than other people, using their creativity as a means to satisfy their need for connection.

While creativity is an emotional act, I would not go as far to say that creative people are necessarily more intellectually aware of their emotions. Philosopher Alain de Botton writes in his book Art as Therapy:

“And that’s the wonderful thing about art – it can be enjoyed by both the educated and non-educated mind. And it doesn’t necessarily require a high level of intellectual communication to feel something. But this doesn’t deny the fact that an intellectual understanding of something can enhance the experience, pulling deeper meaning out of a source image.”

Alain de Botton – Art as Therapy

This leads me to think that artists (particularly musicians) may be inclined to use art as a method of experiencing and expressing emotion in a way that they may not be able to (or want to) intellectualize.

The Impact of Treatment on One's Personal Experience

While often effective, treating one's mental health issues through therapy and medication is not a path that many people choose – especially if one's experiences are a significant source of creative inspiration.

For some, medication may be viewed as a means of ‘suppressing’ themselves. Sure, medication and therapy can be used as a way to manage unwanted symptoms, but then isn’t it also likely that it will take away some of the wanted symptoms? People who live with Bipolar disorder (a mood disorder that is associated with experiencing both depressive and manic episodes) may want to minimize their depressive episodes… but what if treating the depressive episodes also minimizes the manic episodes that they find inspiration in? Similarly, it can’t always be assumed that people living with schizophrenia, who engage with voices or identities not seen by others, do not find some enjoyment with their symptoms.

I’ve worked in the field of mental health for almost four years now, and I’ve supported many people who have actually found a lot of enjoyment from some of their voices. It shouldn’t be assumed that a person who has different experiences than others, is necessarily having bad experiences. Some people choose not to take certain medications or receive therapeutic support because they simply do not want to – and that’s okay.

Musicians Have A Stressful Life – Espeically Right Now

People working in creative industries have unique barriers to wellbeing. Musicians in particular have faced adversity from the pandemic. Although sports arenas fill time and time again, concerts and festivals are canned left, right and center, being viewed as ‘non-essential’ (or as the government won’t admit, non-profitable).

My partner of several years is both a musician and works as a DJ, and I’ve seen the impacts of the lockdowns and constant gig cancellations. Inspiration to create is at an all-time low, as he has watched his communities go unsupported and unvalued. I also grew up with my brother (who runs this site), who is a musician and music producer, and would similarly testify to the fact that making a living in the musical world is brutal – even before the challenges presented by the pandemic. The non-existent consistency in work and income partnered with the persisting criticism from both self and others is a recipe for struggling.

I, however, do not work in a creative industry. I am a mental health worker who is a part of a team. I am rostered on for consistent hours, have annual leave and sick pay for when I am unable to work and have a team of supportive coworkers. Watching both my partner and my brother experience the loss of work, as well as be more or less alone and unsupported through it, breaks my heart. Having a team behind you through life’s challenges makes all the difference.

The Value of Music

Music has become increasingly available and cheap in our culture. In my lifetime, we’ve moved from purchasing CDs, to paying 99 cents per song on iTunes and now streaming. Back in the day, I thought carefully about every song I was going to download onto my 4GB lime-green iPod Nano (and yes, I still chose The Hamster Dance and music by Crazy Frog), whereas now, I don’t think twice before adding a song to a playlist on Spotify. It may not seem like much of a big deal, but I fear that people are generally valuing music as an art form less and less. I think of how this impacts those creating it, particularly the lesser-known independent artists who aren’t being boosted by big record labels. I’ve witnessed the hundreds of hours spent in home studios before music is released, and I sure as hell know how valuable that is.

Summary

Ultimately, I do not have an answer as to the question, “Which came first – the artist or the suffering?” But art, whether it be music, painting, literature, or cinema, is valuable. It’s important to those who create it, and those who dedicate their life to their creative work are deeply valuable to our world for their contributions. Art is important for those who consume it, as it enriches our lives and teaches us about the world around us. Any person who is invested in art would agree that their creativity, or appreciation of it, cannot be separated from who they are. Therefore, wellbeing and art should always be thought of as belonging together.

To some, art may seem like an unnecessary element of life, in the sense that it doesn’t necessarily keep us alive. While art does not keep us alive in the same way that food, water, and shelter do, it keeps us alive in the sense that it gives us a life filled with meaning. If our lives were not decorated with beautiful, enriching things, we would probably have difficulty finding reasons to be alive. Our planet without art would be lifeless, menial, and bland. Particularly for people living with mental health issues, finding meaning and things to enjoy is essential. Similarly, art can help us make sense of our world, and is an incredible tool for navigating life.

Resources and Further Reading

“Mental health woes are rife in the arts – no wonder”– The Conversation

“Scientists: The ‘Tortured Artist' Is a Real Thing” – Mental Floss

Creativity and mental health: A profile of writers and musicians. Indian Journal of Psychiatry

Mental Illness and Creativity: A Neurological View of the “Tortured Artist”. Stanford Journal of Neuroscience.

Botton, A. Art as Therapy. Phaidon, 2013.

Elkins, J. (2012). Visual literacy. New York: Routledge.

Freeland, C. A. (2002). But Is It Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krause, J. (2004). Design essentials index. Cincinnati, OH: How Books.

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