Creativity and Mental Health

It seems that mental health is the ‘cool’ topic at the moment. The profile of this important issue has been has been raised by celebrity suicides, such as Robin Williams in 2014, and by celebrities opening up about their own mental health experiences. Just over a month ago Prince Harry revealed his personal mental health struggles in an interview with the Telegraph and he, along with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have established a mental health charity. It’s an important issue that can affect anyone at any time. 6,188 people committed suicide in the UK in 2015 compared with 1,732 people that died on Britain’s roads. In 2015 you were three and half times more likely to kill yourself than die in a road traffic accident.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the subject recently. It’s partly because it’s in the news, partly because more people I know and people I follow on social media are opening up about their personal mental health battles (and wins), but mainly because my own mental health has been on my mind.

A few years ago, I went to a standing-room music gig with my hubby. It was very cool and we had a great time, but I realised that I couldn’t tolerate being near other people, especially if they were dancing. The more they moved the more uncomfortable I became and we ended up standing on the periphery for the entire show. It was the first time I realised that I don’t react in a ‘normal’ way to social or public situations and the first time I understood my reaction was anxiety. Some people call it an anxiety disorder, some people call it agoraphobia, but suddenly some of my reactions made sense: an anxiety attack on an aircraft because the person sitting next to me wouldn’t stay still, an anxiety attack in a shop because I felt trapped by the arrangement of the shop fittings and the presence of other shoppers, numerous times I skipped social engagements or became horribly stressed before going out, and even clutching my brother’s wheelchair as a child (because I couldn’t hold Mum’s hand).
Fortunately, it’s not been something that has seriously impacted my life. There are many people far worse off than me. I can still go out to work. I can still go shopping. I can still go out with friends. Some people facing anxiety can’t do any of those things. 

However, I’m not going to lie; I have been more anxious the past few months and some of those normal day to day activities have been more of a challenge. There have been times when I haven’t felt like me, when I wondered where this neurotic intruder had come from. Sometimes the worry inside my own head is almost paralysing and on those days I can’t face my novel. On those days instead of writing a few thousand words of my current project I write about how I feel. I try to capture what’s in my head and unpick the worry. It has been incredibly helpful. In some ways it’s an inspiration because coming out of the other side of a period of anxiety has given me ideas for ways I can develop characters and add an extra dimension to my story. 

The links between creativity and mental health have been widely studied and reported to various degrees. In my youth I was misguided enough to think that I wouldn’t be a writer because I wasn’t screwed up enough: I have a great family, had a happy childhood, and didn’t (at that time) feel I had any problems to work through, that somehow their problems were what made them great writers. My perception was that writers needed demons to exorcise. Aaron Sorkin is one of my favourite screenwriters and has experienced ongoing drug addiction. Virginia Wolfe drowned herself, having battled manic depression throughout her adult life. Sylvia Plath gassed herself using her kitchen stove having suffered bipolar-like depression from college age. And Philip K Dick abused stimulants and discussed his own schizophrenic tendencies in a autobiographical essay that he wrote in the sixties. The writing sphere is littered with the bodies of our most talented people suffering from various addictions, depressions, bipolar disorders and schizophrenic tendencies. No wonder it sometimes seems a requirement of the job and in 2015, The Guardian published news of an Icelandic study that seems to demonstrate a genetic link between creativity and mental illness. The study suggests that creative people are 25% more likely to suffer from a mental illness. An article on the BBC website also discusses several studies that suggest a causal relationship between creativity and mental illness, asking if mental illness itself enhances creativity. However, I wonder if the link really is a causal one. Does mental illness cause creativity or creativity cause mental illness?

As I mentioned before, like so many people I’m not a stranger to mental health issues and I found writing about those feelings was cathartic. As discussed in a previous post, writing is not my only creative outlet and when I’ve been experiencing heightened anxiety I’ve also turned to art and crafts. It’s been a salve and I’m sure it has contributed to my recovery and return to a more balanced state. In a blog on the Huffington Post, James Clear discussed the health benefits of creativity. He discussed a review in the American Journal of Public Health, which considered a range of studies that examined wide ranging creative pursuits. The review found that artistic and creative activity improved the mental wellbeing of patients. A second study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine, and discussed in the same blog post, found that creativity had a direct physical effect on the body.

Perhaps it isn’t our mental illness, or the genes that dictate it, that make us creative. Maybe it isn’t a requirement of being a writer that you need to have a tortured soul or demons to contain or expel. Perhaps it’s simply a case of countless people finding comfort in their creativity. Whatever the link, you shouldn’t feel that your mental wellbeing is a limit to your creativity. And, of course, if you are experiencing depression, addiction or any other mental or physical illness, the act of creating may well prove to be a literal life saver.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the blog this week. What are your thoughts on the links between creativity and mental health?

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