Art + Mental Illness = Myth?

A while back, PBS Digital Studio put their name on a YouTube video in which a slender, altogether sane woman posed an interesting question:

Can we please stop treating art and mental illness at though they are related?


And I went, “What?”

If they’d said something more like, “Can we please stop acting like spousal abuse is okay if it’s committed by a genius (Picasso)?” or “Can we stop excusing self-mutilation / cries for help as ‘the artistic temperament’ (Van Gogh)?” I would have been on board.


But that’s not what they said.

That slender, sane woman went on to say that according to a 2013 study released by Karolinski Institute of Stockholm, persons in creative professions are not more likely to suffer from mental illness than the rest of the populous. However, the study does suggest that people in creative professions were “very slightly” more likely to suffer from bipolar disorder (no number given to indicate how much “slightly” is).

So, bipolar doesn’t count as a mental illness?

I’m not sure how to phrase my questions politely to these folks, but I’d legitimately like to know…

a) Does “creative profession” exclusively mean “Persons who do art for a living”? Wide-eyed artistic types (in the USA, at least) are frequently told they can’t make a living with their art, so they bus tables, build computer chips, or learn to do something their societal counterparts consider “real jobs” in order to pay their bills. I don’t believe that makes them lesser artists.

b) What is mental illness? If we agree depression, bipolar, anxiety, and self-harm / suicide are mental illness, I believe the number of mental illness sufferers (the video never gives us) might go up.

c) What is art? If we agree Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, and Robin Williams were makers of art, I believe the number of mental illness sufferers (the video, again, never gives us) might go up.

Seriously. Try to tell a writer he or she is not an artist sometime. Then, watch the supernova of indignity and shortly thereafter the black hole of self-doubt consume him / her and anything in a 5 foot radius. It’s a hoot.

What’s more worrisome to me is that most artists I know are anxious and depressive, if not suicidal. And I don’t believe I’m alone on this. After the death of  Robin Williams, the folks at released a poignant article about depression as they perceived it in the comic writer, and they stated, if pressed to guess how many of their writers suffered from depression, they’d have to say “…all of them.”

I feel like the folks who made the video for PBS were sane people who are annoyed at the misconception that…

Mental Illness = Artist.

On that, I quite agree with them. I believe that…

Mental Illness = Mental Illness

And in many cases, the art produced by a depressive, schizophrenic, autistic, bi-polar, anxious, or suicidal person comes from a phenomenon the psychologists call sublimation – the channeling negative and unacceptable impulses into behaviors that are positive and socially acceptable (says

In other words…

Art = Not Punching People = Not Going to Jail

In those cases, the mental illness does cause the art when the art is a coping mechanism the way it is for me. A boxer might work out, or a chef might make croissants in order to relieve their own symptoms of similar disorders. But for me, the rapid-swing bipolar and suicidal thoughts tend to be better dispelled by my doing something artistic.

mona lispa

I guess I got extra irritated with this video because mental illness is still highly stigmatized and often invisible. If an artist with anxiety, depression, or something else gets told by enough sane people “You’re not normal, and you’re not special. Get over yourself, and act right,” do you think that person is more or less likely to make art again? Do you think that person is more or less likely to open up and get help for his or her illness?

To any readers who believe I got it all wrong, please – oh please – tell me why in the comments. I’d love to be completely mistaken on this issue so I can quit being upset about it.

To any readers suffering from anxiety, depression, etc, I’m pullin’ for ya. Persevere and love yourself. With the right kind of help and support, it can get better.

If you’re happy and sane, awesome! Blaze a trail for others to follow.

But neither one of y’all are better or worse artists by default. Just sayin.’



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s