The fine line between creativity and mental health

"Artists tend to be exceptionally sensitive to the beauty and brokenness of this world."

Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra

The fine line between creativity and mental health

Written by: Amanda Wilson
May 29, 2018


“All magic comes with a price and all artists pay for their gifts,” Aaron Davis of Merrillville recalls his college script-writing professor saying. Davis is an artist, writer, musician, actor and student at Chicago’s famed Second City Conservatory. The price that his professor referred to is one that Davis knows all too well, as creativity, bipolar II disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder have been present and intertwined in his life since childhood. 

Davis says his bipolar II disorder and his art inform and influence each other, both the highs of hypomania and the lows of depression. He says he’s been wildly productive during hypomanic phases, as when he wrote a 35-page script in 48 hours. “For three or four days, you’re in this elevated state and can accomplish a lot.”

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“All magic comes with a price and all artists pay for their gifts,” Aaron Davis of Merrillville recalls his college script-writing professor saying. Davis is an artist, writer, musician, actor and student at Chicago’s famed Second City Conservatory. The price that his professor referred to is one that Davis knows all too well, as creativity, bipolar II disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder have been present and intertwined in his life since childhood. 

Davis says his bipolar II disorder and his art inform and influence each other, both the highs of hypomania and the lows of depression. He says he’s been wildly productive during hypomanic phases, as when he wrote a 35-page script in 48 hours. “For three or four days, you’re in this elevated state and can accomplish a lot.”

Davis had attended colleges in Wisconsin and California before returning to the area to finish his degree at Purdue University Northwest. He was involved in various choral groups during his time at school and served as the worship pastor for a small church plant. By fall 2013, he says, the combination of an overabundance of activity with malfunctioning adrenal glands led to a downward spiral of exhaustion and depression. He recalls Mondays in which he skipped classes, blocked the light from his room and sat on the floor of his closet with a comforter over his head. “When you have high functioning bipolar and OCD disorders, you always have a face on. People don’t see what’s beyond that,” Davis says. 

THE CURSE OF CREATIVITY 

The struggles of creatives with mental illness throughout history are well known, and cultural icons from Vincent van Gogh to Sylvia Plath personify the tragedy and mystique of the tortured artist. But research on the correlation between creatively inclined individuals and mental illness is inconclusive. There are studies, such as the large-scale study done by Swedish researchers from the Karolinska Institutet, which found that certain types of mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, were more prevalent among those in creative professions. Yet many scientists are doubtful of a confirmed, genetic link in creatives with mental illness and point to various studies that relied on too few study participants and thin evidence. 

Is the creative individual more inclined toward mental illness because of certain personality traits and brain chemistry composition? Or, does the creative pursuit itself act as a trigger for mental illness in susceptible individuals?  

Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Aaron Davis is an artist, writer, musician and actor who struggles with mental illness in the face of creativity.
Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Aaron Davis is an artist, writer, musician and actor who struggles with mental illness in the face of creativity.

Davis had attended colleges in Wisconsin and California before returning to the area to finish his degree at Purdue University Northwest. He was involved in various choral groups during his time at school and served as the worship pastor for a small church plant. By fall 2013, he says, the combination of an overabundance of activity with malfunctioning adrenal glands led to a downward spiral of exhaustion and depression. He recalls Mondays in which he skipped classes, blocked the light from his room and sat on the floor of his closet with a comforter over his head. “When you have high functioning bipolar and OCD disorders, you always have a face on. People don’t see what’s beyond that,” Davis says. 

THE CURSE OF CREATIVITY 

The struggles of creatives with mental illness throughout history are well known, and cultural icons from Vincent van Gogh to Sylvia Plath personify the tragedy and mystique of the tortured artist. But research on the correlation between creatively inclined individuals and mental illness is inconclusive. There are studies, such as the large-scale study done by Swedish researchers from the Karolinska Institutet, which found that certain types of mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, were more prevalent among those in creative professions. Yet many scientists are doubtful of a confirmed, genetic link in creatives with mental illness and point to various studies that relied on too few study participants and thin evidence. 

Is the creative individual more inclined toward mental illness because of certain personality traits and brain chemistry composition? Or, does the creative pursuit itself act as a trigger for mental illness in susceptible individuals?  

“It’s a lonely experience to have a unique perspective and to be outside of those who don’t share your unique perspective,” says Dr. Shaun Wehle, psychologist and owner of Dr. Shaun Wehle and Associates in Merrillville. “The pressure of being misunderstood and unappreciated is heavy.” Yet, he adds, personality factors may well be part of it, too. “Many creatives have personality attributes that lead more easily to maladies like anxiety and depression. They tend to be exceptionally perceptive and sensitive to other people’s pain, to injustice, and to the beauty and brokenness of this world.” 

Northwest Indiana musician and artist James (who chose not to use his real name) says he’s always felt things deeply and sensed from a young age that this set him apart from other people. A self-taught guitarist who writes and records his own music, James has played shows across the country. He recently began creating and selling hand-made art pieces as well. James says he was always tuned into the world around him, particularly music. “There have been many times in my life that were filled with melancholy but I call these ‘mood seasons,’” he says. “Some of the songs that I have written when I felt depressed have literally welled up out of my soul.”  

James says the depth of emotion elicited and reciprocated between artist and audience is magic. “There is no feeling like getting to stand up in front of a ‘sea of heads’ that are smiling, dancing and crying,” he says. “These people are there to forget any troubles they may be having. They are there to feel good, and that is a very powerful thing.” That feel-good high can bolster his spirit for weeks, James says, but coming down from it can be depressing, too. “Artists can get depressed from that experience,” he says. “I think there are a lot of artists that are probably suffering from depression and they may not even have the energy to drag themselves to talk to someone for help.” 

Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra
Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra

FINDING HEALING

Many creatives fear that receiving treatment for mental illness, particularly mood-altering medications, will kill creativity. But, Wehle says, “Don’t be afraid that you’ll lose your creative edge if you seek help. Even with support and medication, you’ll still see the world in a unique way.” Medications can have side effects that dampen creativity, but side effects can be managed with proper medication and treatment adjustments.  

Wehle concedes that certain mental states such as mania can lead to higher rates of creativity and productivity, but he cautions that it’s essential to weigh the cost of that creativity. “If you’re productive during a manic state yet you’re putting your loved ones at risk, the risk outweighs the benefit,” he says. “When you’re in a manic phase, you’re seeing the world in a way that’s very unique. Leveling off with the right treatment and medication allows you to be tethered without losing your creative edge, so that people can still hear the message you’re trying to send.”  

Wehle adds that many types of treatment can actually enhance creativity. “With the right treatment, artistic expression can flourish,” he says. “Talk therapy and group therapy both allow you to get your thoughts outside of your head, to get perspective and to be heard. Isn’t that what artistic expression is, getting your perspective out there for the world? And, of course, art therapy is a creative approach to healing. Psychotherapy gives you power.” 

For Davis, putting a name to his experiences was in itself healing. Seeking help for OCD symptoms, Davis took advantage of free access to therapists at Purdue University Northwest. Weekly therapy sessions and testing led to Davis’s diagnoses of obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar II disorder. “I already knew, but it was helpful to have it confirmed,” he says. In addition to therapy and counseling sessions, Davis uses herbal supplements to balance his adrenal glands.  

He also has a solid support group of trusted friends to look out for him. He recalls a recent night out with friends when they pointed out that he was getting hyperfocused, so one of his friends followed him home to make sure Davis was okay.

Photo Credit: Michelle Hamstra

James says talk is the big thing he recommends for creatives in need of mental health help. “We have one life here and if it’s not feeling good enough or right for you, do not keep that inside of you.” He takes the antidepressant Wellbutrin, and he describes its effects as “giving me an extra 15 seconds before I smash something.” He credits the support of his wife, sons and God for helping him through the good and bad times. Depression once robbed him of the happiness he knew his family, career and talent should bring him, and he vows that though “that little depression devil is always waiting for me around the red brick corner, I’m not going to give him any power.”  

He advises other creatives struggling with darkness to fight for light. “Life is complicated, but it is so worth it to stand up and fight for your soul,” he says. “Enjoy this life. It’s too easy to take it all for granted.”