Do You Have to Be Depressed to Be Creative?


Edgar Allan Poe. Edvard Munch. Virginia Woolf. Sylvia Plath. Elliot Smith. These names have become synonymous with the epitome of the tortured artist stereotype. They all struggled with mental illness, and yet they were able to create art that stood the test of time. "We of the craft are all crazy,"wrote English poet Lord Byron. But that is not entirely true.

A mental disorder, generally characterized by a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behavior and relationships with others, hinders a person's ability to function in ordinary life. Illnesses like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses do not make individuals more creative. These disorders do, however, cause real suffering, and they should not be romanticized under any circumstances. Why then, is the narrative of the tortured artist so prominent in mainstream culture?

Image title"Sorrowing Old Man" was completed two months before van Gogh'ssuicide.Wikipedia

-Silvia Plath,The Unabridged Journals of Silvia Plath

For decades, psychologists have been interested in the link between creativity and mental illness, motivated in part by the romantic notion of the tortured artist. A study conducted at the University of Iowa during the 1970s and '80s concluded that writers in particular had a high rate of mood disorders. More recently,Simon Kyaga at Sweden's Karolinska Institute found that people working in creative fields, including dancers, photographers and authors, were 8 percent more likely to live with bipolar disorder.

The unfortunate truth is some of history's greatest artists have suffered from mental illness, but up until recently, the disorders were not properly understood or treated. Vincent van Gogh likely lived with some sort of mental disorder, despite never being adequately diagnosed. In a letter to his brother, he wrote, "I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me. Now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head... at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse."

Countless other renowned artists have also struggled with mood disorders, including writer Ernest Hemingway who took his own life just seven years after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature and mere months before the birth of his daughter."Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know," wrote Hemingway in The Garden of Eden.

Although there is evidence of a connection between madness and creativity, mental illness is not essential for creativity to exist. Still, audiences tend to obsess over the idea of the tortured artist,the mad genius whose passion stems from suffering."I always found the concept of a tortured artist distasteful," said Wilco'sJeff Tweedy."The artists that have created without having any physical flaws and psychological damage don't get any ink."

Beth Murphy, head of information at mental health charity Mind, believes individuals with mental illnesses are simply more attracted to professions where they can use their creative skills. "It is important that we do not romanticize people with mental health problems, who are too often portrayed as struggling creative geniuses," said Murphy. The tortured artist narrative may be inspired by reality, but not all creative thinkers fall into that stereotype. And it's important not to idealize those that do.

Image titleKurt Cobain tragically took his own life after a public battle with depression. Pinterest

-Kurt Cobain, Journals

Prominent writers, painters, photographers, actors and dancers have all battled with mental illness, but over the past 50 years, musicians have pushed the troubled artist trope to the forefront of mainstream culture.

Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll; that's the type of life we expect musicians to live, and yet we still act surprised when this trajectory culminates in tragedy. On December 3, 2015, Scott Weiland, best known as the lead singer of Stone Temple Pilots, was found dead on his tour bus. He'd overdosed on cocaine and a cocktail of other drugs.Commenting on her ex-husband's untimely death,Mary Forsber wrote, "Let's choose to make this the first time we don't glorify this tragedy with talk of rock and roll and the demons that, by the way, don't have to come with it."

The 27 Clubis the perfect example of society's glorification of the tortured artist. It's made up of groundbreaking musicians who tragically self-destructed at the peak of their career, dying at age 27. Jimi Hendrix choked on his own vomit. Janis Joplin succumbed to a heroin overdose. Jim Morrison suffered a drug-induced heart attack. Kurt Cobain committed suicide by gunshot and Amy Winehouse died from alcohol poisoning. There's no denying the impact these artists had on music, but the age of 27 does not bestow any greater risk of death in popular musicians than other ages.

The reason the 27 Club has engrained itself into popular culture is that it fits into the narrative of the tortured artist. These musicians were not only exceptionally talented, they also suffered from intense psychological pain. The Club has been repeatedly written about in music magazines, newspapers, novels, films and stage plays because it perpetuates a story audiences are all too familiar with: the creative genius plagued by insanity.

Kurt Cobain's Journals,a heart-wrenching collection of the late singer's personal writings and drawings, opened at No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. Released in 2002, the book wasdescribed by Seattle Weekly News as an "exploded diagram of a tormented soul, a maelstrom of self-pity, intolerant pride, morbid introspection, ingenious self-delusion, merciless self-knowledge, showbiz revulsion, starstruck effusion, Faustian ambition, otherworldly detachment, and an iron will helpless to help itself." While some fans cherished the opportunity to peek inside Cobain's mind, many others considered it an invasion of privacy.

It makes sense for psychologists to research the link between creativity and mental illness, but it doesn't make sense for popular culture to romanticize the rise and fall of artists who actually struggle with mood disorders. "At some point, someone needs to step up and point out that yes, this will happen again "“ because as a society we almost encourage it," wrote Frosber.

Image titleEminem overcame addiction and depression following a near-death experience.Imgur

-Elliot Smith,"Southern Belle"

The romantic notion that mental illness enhances creativity is a dangerous fallacy. Throughout history, many famous artists have lived with mood disorders, but that doesn't mean they were successful because of their illness. From 2004 to 2008, Eminem "couldn't write a rhyme to save [his] life,"because he was battling with depression and addiction. In an interview with The Guardian, Eminem said, "It was the worst case of writer's block. Going through that I felt like shit ... I was already depressed and with the drugs it just became a vicious cycle of depression."

When asked if she was happy, Lady Gaga said, "Today, yes." But that was not always the case. "I became very depressed at the end of 2013 ... I really felt like I was dying"”my light completely out ... Depression doesn't take away your talents"”it just makes them harder to find."

For some artists, mental illness can even be an impediment to their creative talents. Brian Wilson, co-founder of the Beach Boys and arguably one of the most influential creative forces in popular music, was diagnosed with manic depressive disorder at 25 years old. But it wasn't until he started taking medication at 40 that he was able to relieve his symptoms and play music consistently. "I get depressed to the point where I can't do anything"”I can't even write songs, which is my passion,"said Wilson. "I used to go for long periods without being able to do anything, but now I play every day."

Despite claims,art and suffering do not necessarily go hand in hand. "Creative people are not more likely to be diagnosed with mental illness, and mentally ill people are not more likely to be creative than normal people,"said R. Keith Sawyer, a professor of education at the University of North Carolina.

Image titleEdvard Munch's "The Scream" is said to represent the artist's anxiety.Wikipedia

-Eminem,"Going Through Changes"

Millions of Americans are affected by mental health conditions every year. And yes, several of history's most influential creative minds have battled with illnesses including bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorder and ADHD. But mood disorders don't have to be present for creativity to exist. Romanticizing the stereotype of the mad genius creates unrealistic expectations of how an artist should act. And a person's mental health should never be glorified or exploited.

Living with mental illness makes it difficult to interact with other people. It makes it harder to process emotions and it affects the individual's perception of reality. Mood disorders are serious conditions with real-life consequences. They are not the key to creative success, and they should never be portrayed as such.

"I'm so sick of people saying that I'm lonely and emotional," complained Drake, who has frequently been criticized by the hip-hop community for portraying vulnerability in his songs. "I do make music that makes you feel something. But I'm actually not that guy in real life. I'm very happy. I'm not content by any means, I mean, I want to keep working, but I'm a happy person. I'm very excited. My life is constantly exciting. It's not some sad, depressing story."

Artists don't have to fit into the narrative of the mad genius to be successful.Some people do suffer for their art. And some art does stem from suffering. But not all creative works come from a place of pain. The brilliant, yet misunderstood, mastermind is a romantic depiction of a tragic reality. But you don't have to be depressed, or suffer from any other mental illness, to be creative.

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