It is almost a cliche to hear of the relationship between artists and mental illness. Writers, musicians, comics, and other performers are routinely diagnosed with mental illness, particularly depression, and often self-medicate through sexuality, drugs, and alcohol. Nonetheless, artists are also well known for their startling insight into the human experience, for their ability to feel and to convey emotional and intuitive wisdom through their creations). And artists in general are also much more open to the world around them than most people. So what we have is a paradoxical situation where artists end up showing better signs of mental health in some ways than most people, but also show much higher amounts of mental illness than most people. What is one to make of these paradoxical results?
For one, it suggests that mental health is unable to distinguish between different aspects of mental health. Rather than seeing mental health as a big picture or process, all too often it is viewed through the lenses of many different mental illnesses. We spend so much time looking for dysfunction that we forget often how mental health is supposed to function normally. Often, also, we do not do a good enough job at connecting together related dysfunctions, at least those that are related often by correlation and causality. If we thought in terms of whole systems rather than merely trying to diagnose maladies, we might stand a better chance at improving mental health. If someone is depressed, alcoholic, and have a terrible family history, the odds are that helping someone tackle the underlying issues might alleviate some of the more surface concerns. We must remember when we are dealing with people, though, that we are dealing with complicated individuals whose thought processes are in systems.
Let us take artists as simply one example of this phenomenon. One of the reasons why artists show enigmatic results for mental health and distress is because of a phenomenon known as Negative Obsessive Rumination. In this phenomenon the mind is stuck on the same track over and over and over again, never resolving the underlying tension. This can be both good and bad. For an artist, the desire to be creative means that some problem needs to be wrestled with by the mind. Whenever all problems are solved, there is equilibrium, and that means no creation. It is only life’s absurdity that inspires the artist to further create. Once the absurdity stops, as it did for Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad in the 1910’s, the creativity stops.
But that creativity is a double-edged sword. Because if the absurdity gets too much to handle, or it is too severe, the mind can be stuck on the same problems over and over again, like a tape playing in rewind. It becomes like a real-life psychodrama of Jean Paul Satre’s No Exit. Hell is your own mental torment being repeated over and over again with no escape. So a creative person, like an artist, has a few choices. For one, either they can mine life’s dramas, and try to deal with absurdity by tackling massive social issues (this is one reason why artist’s are so drawn by social causes–their sensitivity to injustice is far more intense than that of the ordinary person who compartmentalizes and segments off absurdity into mental boxes that are never opened). A lot of artists start life with absurdity in their families (see Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night), or find absurdity through politics and religion (Shakespeare is a notable example). The only problem is that an artist has to walk a fine line between equilibrium and the loss of creativity and being overwhelmed by absurdity and unable to make sense of it. When either happens the artist loses their edge, or loses their sanity. Both are threatening, especially as an artist becomes successful and recognized (and rewarded) for their craft.
So, if we wish to help someone who is a self-aware artist, what we are seeking is a way to make sense of absurdity and to keep it serving its purpose to feed the creative fires of the mind, and serve the passionate desire for justice of the heart. We do not seek to rid the causes that lead to creativity by turning the artist into just another numb or compartmentalized person lacking in sensitivity to the problems of the world around us, but neither do we want those sensitivities so over-exposed that they lead to mental and physical and emotional and spiritual distress. So we walk a tightrope, solving one problem internally and then moving on to the next one, making sure to be sensitive and aware to the endless amount of absurdity that exists in this crazy world. That way both the world can be improved little by little and the mental health of the artist can be preserved.