Creativity and Mental Illness

Mental illness and creativity often go hand in hand. Some say the figure is as high as 70 percent. So the question that has been asked, by artists and non artists alike – does one have to be a little bit mad to create art? And, without that spice of madness, would the artist be driven to create anything at all? Is it possible that art is only the by product of a tortured soul trying to resolve herself?

Well-l-l-l, maybe. There is something to be said for the idea that art is an effective way to translate your emotions out of your body. But all people feel pain, joy, suffering, elation – I do not think powerful experience is the sole purview of the mentally ill.

When I drew up the first draft of this essay, I was imprisoned in a body which had been in pain from a migraine, nausea, and extreme depression for seven months. Now, with treatment working more or less as it should be, I have painted 6 canvasses, written 3 articles, attended two networking meetings, taken two interviews, worked with an intern, taken myself to the doctor three times, resolved an argument with my husband, started an account with a new client, and more or less been very effective for half of each day for the last week.

We are still working on the second half of the day. It may be a blood sugar problem, so I am experimenting with eating four meals a day instead of two and a half.

My artistic friends with mental illness have often been afraid to go on medication, because they truly fear they will lose their creativity. My husband went on badly needed anti-depressants, and simply stopped drawing. But he was happy, and handling the other areas of his life. He simply had not developed a habit of drawing. He had always relied on a compulsion to draw. So he went off the anti-depressants, and he draws all the time. But he is almost always dissatisfied with his life.

In my case, try non-stop suicidal ideation. That will put a damper on your creativity like a big lead balloon.

I have four diagnosed mental disorders. Bi-polar disorder; obsessive compulsive disorder; anxiety disorder, and post traumatic stress syndrome. I can tell you that life with medicine is a struggle, but life for me without medicine is hell.

I understand why people try to medicate themselves with street drugs. I have all the sympathy in the world for them. If only the street drugs would cure their illness. They don’t, they just give the addict a new problem to deal with. As a friend of mine once said “Heroine takes all your problems away and replaces it with one big problem…???

Before medicine, I was a professional creative writer. I was a talented writer who was sometimes brilliant, sometimes awful, sometimes ahead of schedule by months, sometimes months behind, sometimes clear as a bell, sometimes, as one editor said “muddy as a pile of horse shit – I know there’s a horse under here somewhere, but could you dig her out and send it back to me????

In other words, my editors never knew what they were going to get from me. Still, I continued to write. Probably because there is an old saying in the arts: “You can be a nice guy, a genius, or on time all the time – but you’d better be two of the three, or you’ll never get work.??? Well, I was good at what I was doing, and happy to do it over, and gracious about it most of the time. That was probably the only thing that saved my ass.

These days I am also a professional writer, though most of my writing is commercial. The differences are like that of a finely trained archer. Point me at a target, and I will hit it, almost every time. Point me at it from seven different perspectives, and I’ll give you seven different points of view.

The difference is, medication, therapy, and about two years of training, learning to use the talent I already had, without compulsion driving me to use it. And lest you think I am not inspired, I am inspired all the time – it’s just that now I follow up on a regular basis more often. Not all the time, but more of the time.

When I was first medicated I slept 16 hours a day. (Now I sleep 9.) I was groggy even when I was awake. From there I had to fight to get back 16 hours a day of being alert. I compromised at 14 hours, some rest and a nap. I exercise as often as I can, and this gives me a much better mood and much more productive working time.

Then I missed the Zen joy of writing, but simply couldn’t seem to find room for it in my life. So I was confused. It was a problem I never had before. I turned to my dear friend Derek, the only sane writer I know.

“Derek, what’s wrong with me????

“Nothing’s wrong with you,??? said Derek “Except that you have no discipline.???

“WHAT!? I used to write 500 words an hour, my record was 120 pages in four days.!???

“???Well, yes, and you could probably do that again, if you started taking SPEED!

“Or went off your meds.

“Otherwise you will have to learn like the rest of us, to struggle with the page, to make regular time, to face the fact that sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t. But I promise you one thing – “


“At the end of the year you will have more work done, and it will be more good work.???

And so I began the step by step challenge of non-mania driven discipline. This applied to all areas of my life. I had to learn the discipline of working again, eating regularly, even having any sense of time at all, quite frankly. Without my overdrive, I had to learn to domesticate myself.

First I used the Covey plan from Seven Habits for Highly Effective People. I structured my days, my weeks, my months according to my highest to lowest priorities.

Then it became so-o-o-o hard for me to follow a schedule book and not get lost as to which day it is. And then I would occasionally misplace my book, or leave it at home and people would ask for an appointment when I didn’t have my all important book – that I began to modify the system.
#1) Rule, the book is with me at all times.

#2) Rule, check the book several times a day and don’t assume you remember all the details from your first glance of the day.

#3) Always write in phone numbers and addresses and directions to where you are going. This requires space, so I recommend an 8 _ x 11 inch book with one day per page, and a book of monthly and weekly reviews.

#4) Try to make and keep regular weekly appointments

I always exercise from ________to__________ on __________
I always see my Doctor at _________ on _______
I always do creative works from ________to __________ on _________
I always meet clients from ___________ to ________ on _________

You get the idea. Then your pattern recognition isn’t a matter of trying to make cohesion out of constant change, but filling in regular blanks. Who am I meeting on my client time? Which project am I working on in my creative time? What am I doing with my partner during date time?

Now for those of you who are thinking, no – never – not me, take these facts into consideration:

Depression is a serious illness, you can die from it. Dying young produces less great work. And it needn’t be because you committed suicide. My mother wore her body clean through at 52 and produced no art, though she was a fine writer and painter, because she refused to be medicated. She was afraid it would domesticate her.

Well it won’t. Your essential character, values, experiences, judgments, tastes, likes, loves and commitments will always be the same. I can guarantee you, you will have more time and energy to express those values. Secondly, you can only tame a wild creature so much. My hair is still as unruly as it ever was. My imagination still goes places no sane person would ever go. I am still one of a kind, just like you.

So be a little brave. Sign up for a long life of great work – not a short life of fireworks.

It isn’t easy. It takes strength, commitment, hard work, and the love of others.

But oh, my friends, it is worth it.

Every new sunrise,

It’s worth it.


  • Graham Smith says:

    Discovered this whilst searching Google and have to say it’s hit very close to home for me.
    I am struggling with the effects of my medication and contemplating, again, coming off them or changing. It’s that ever so self destructive repeating pattern. Never learn.

    I hope you don’t mind if I re-post this on my Blog, full credits to you ofcourse, just that what you say is so very relevant to what I am going through. I also know many other people will want to read what you have to say.


  • mareldaparish says:

    I am writing not to comment on blog but to write to you directly – i could not identify your email address. I am across your website while researching online blogs with an interest in mental illness and creativity. i liked what you had to say; your words actually gave me hope for perhaps not my daughter but my granddaughter, both of whom have severe mental illness.
    I am writing to invite you to take a look at my daughter rachel’s project
    rachel has a sister with severe mental illness and is deeply interested in ways of supporting people with mental illness in a variety of spheres. she is currently working on a theatre project considering aspects of creativity, imagination and mental illness. Part of this process involves listening to stories of a wide spectrum of people; it doesn’t matter if the person’s life has been touched by mental illness or not. If you are able, could you look at the Testimony page of Rachel’s website, and if you are able, could you consider responding to some of her queries? If you know of others who might be interested, would you mind passing this website on?
    thanks for your work. marelda parish

  • You make alot of sense with this article. I have found that medication is a life saver without it I wouldn’t be the person I am today. As for the creativity on meds I still have alot of ideas just have to push to get them out.

  • Have just come across this (and your other excellent posts), three years after they were written.

    I doubt that you check this account anymore.

    But thanks for the posts.

  • scottyquick says:

    I just wanted to say that I liked your Black Canary miniseries, and that these essays are … well, read the above comments to see.

    I doubt you check this anymore, but still. Just wanted to say that.

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