The Mental Health Myth of the Tortured Artist

How this stereotype can hurt more than it can help

In January of this year, the Philippine rock music world was jarred by the suicide of a musician that he himself captured through his phone on Facebook Live.

At the wake of such tragedies, we are moved to reflect on difficult questions: What can we do aside from expressing our collective grief and sending messages of “Kumusta ka?” (How are you?) to our peers? How can we actively contribute to building communities where the tragic fate of artists is less likely to happen?

Knowledge plays an important role in answering these difficult questions. Given the many stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding mental health, it is important to reevaluate our beliefs and arm ourselves with information that can help us become better mental health advocates.

One mental health stereotype that we have held on for too long is that of the tormented artist.

Creativity does not have to come with torment

It is easy to think of artists — musicians, writers, painters, and the like — who have suffered from mental illness. In psychology, this is called availability bias, the tendency to base conclusions on how readily we can think of examples that support them. Since the deaths of celebrated artists are more publicized, and we must admit, sensationalized, such information is easily accessible. This leads us to believe that such cases are more common than they actually are.

However, psychological studies have repeatedly found that the creative population is only equally susceptible to mental illness as the general population. In other words, the likelihood of mental illness in creatives is generally the same as in any other people.

A less popular notion, but better supported by research, is that of creativity as a hallmark of mental health. The process of continually producing creative work requires a mind that can hold and organize divergent ideas, a strong work ethic, and a focused approach to one’s creative tasks. Anxiety and erratic moods are hindrances to such a process. Interviews of artists who suffer from mental illnesses reveal that the artists themselves believe that they are at their most productive when anxieties and depressive thoughts are at bay. The truth is that most artists create despite their mental health struggles and not because of it.

Photo by MUILLU on Unsplash

Mental health stigma hurts the creative individual

It is not creativity but the stigma surrounding mental issues that is the real enemy. One study comparing an artistic group with a general group found that although the rates of mental illness in both groups were similar, those belonging to the former were less likely to seek professional help.

A few explanations were given: First, a well-known creative person might be afraid of being labeled as “disturbed” or “insane.” A lot of people hesitate in seeking psychological help because of confidentiality issues and a perceived judgment from others. These concerns are magnified for well-known artists.

Confidentiality is something that all mental health professionals must be able to guarantee, but the suspension of judgment rests in the hands of everyone. Someone struggling with a mental illness often think, “If I seek help, people will think I am weak and desperate.” Given what we know now — that psychological disorders can be just as debilitating as any medical condition — this is akin to someone with a broken leg wondering why they are in pain and can not walk like everyone else. Individuals in both cases need our attention, empathy, and referral to treatment.

Second, the idea that one has to be “a little mad” to produce creative work remains popular.

We need to stop romanticizing mental illness and propagating the stereotype of the tortured, creative soul. Of course, there are many artists who do suffer from serious mental health issues, but it is good to be reminded that mentally healthy creatives who continually produce musical pieces, visual art, and literature also exist. Instead of sensationalizing, let us focus instead on helping our artists realize that they need not struggle in silence, that it is beneficial to seek psychological help, and that suffering need not be a perpetual part of their creative identity.

For psychological support, you may call Samaritans’ free international hotline at 116 123 or email them at jo@smaritans.org

References

Antonio, P. De Biasi, F. (2001) Musical creativity and suicide. Psychological Reports, 89(3), 719–727

Ashby, F.G., Isen, A.M., & Turken, U. (1999). A neuropsychological theory of positive affect and its influence on cognition. Psychological Review, 106(3), 529–550.

Levine, S. (2016). Artistic creativity and psychological distress. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/our-emotional-footprint/201603 /artistic-creativity-and-psychological-distress

Pavitra, K.S., Chandrashekar, C.R., Choudhury, P. (2007) Creativity and mental health: a profile of writers and musicians. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 49(1), 34–43.

Rothenberg, A.(2015) Creativity and Mental Illness. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creative-explorations/201503/creativity-and-mental-illness

Serrano C.M.M., Serrano, C., Serrano, V. (2010) Suicide in musicians in the last forty years: a creative mind condition or a psychopathologic expression?European Psychiatry, 25(1), 555

Teacher and Counselor-in-Training writing about mental health, relationships, learning, and being queer. Based in Manila.

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