“Nearly half of all the ill-health suffered by people of working age has a psychological root and is profoundly disabling …”
As someone who has had a life-long problem with depression, multiple treatments, and has suffered all the consequences (not married, no children, erratic employment, no pension provision when I reach that age), was at one time spending about a third of my income for treatment, and has retrained in psychology to try and understand myself better, I would welcome rather more attention being paid to the issue of mental health. Yes, I know that cancer is terrible, but I sometimes think it gobbles up too much attention and money, to the detriment of efforts to understand and treat other things. Try being ill for forty years – it’s not funny. And it’s expensive for society, too.
Thanks for posting, Martin. The comments you make re cancer and other charitable funding are interesting. The general public consensus seems to be that mental illness is just something that you live with. Sadly, as someone who lost a friend to mental illness, I know this simply isn’t the case.
I’d be surprised if I was the only forum regular able to tell such stories as well.
One of the things that bothers me about the public perception stems from the ‘awareness’ campaigns that have been run. You know the ones: “1 in 4 people suffer from some kind of mental illness”.
Don’t get me wrong, I support the general theme that these issues affect more people than you probably realise at first. What bothers me is the implication that “mental illness” is a binary state: You either have it or you don’t.
Clearly there are sliding scales here, but in addition, mental health can fluctuate in the same way that your physical health can. We all get the emotional equivalent of a cold from time to time, and the emotional equivalent of the flu can kill.
One statistic I’d be interested to learn is whether writers - who I’d imagine spend more time in their own heads than the typical man in the street - have a higher or lower susceptability, or if there is no descernable impact.
It has become apparent to me over the years, and I suspect many other users of Scrivener, too, that a great many of us have one kind of debilitating condition or another. You won’t be on your own here, Martin.
I think the roots of the binary mentality are the social stigma that comes with mental health. While this was overtly admitted in the past, now nobody would explicitly say it. However, I do think that for many people, in the back of their minds at least, it’s not your fault if you have cancer, but it is your fault if you have depression, or schizophrenia. Thus, it’s a character thing, not a disease state.
The real problem is that, compared to other medical fields, mental health research is way behind. We can now seriously start thinking about personalized medicine in many medical fields, but we are not even close to such a concept in mental health. Diabetes has many causes and must be treated wildly differently on the basis of those causes. We do that. Diabetic patients are not all the same. For depression, however, we are not even close to differentiate between different types of depression and we are at a loss when it comes to figure out why some patients respond to meds and others don’t. Mental health research doesn’t even have concepts that go beyond DSM labels, which are clearly inappropriate. NIH is trying to push research in mental health beyond DSM criteria, to look at domains of psychopathology that may cut across DSM definition of mental health problems. But it’s not easy. It’ll take a while. Only when research on mental health matures we can get rid of these naive intuitions that mental health problems are ‘your fault.’
It is said that “creatives”, whoever they may be, suffer a higher incidence of bi-polar disease* (as you probably know). Whether this is statistically true is I suspect impossible to verify. What I’m certain of is that friends who are bi-polar are amongst the cleverest and most imaginative people I know. I’m not sure that spending more time in their own heads is relevant; bi-polar disease as I understand it has in at least some forms a tendency to be genetic**, carried in the female line.
*See, for example, the writings of Kay Redfield Jamison.
** Contrary to what at least one interpretation of my signature might suggest.
I’ve heard this as well, and that worries me. First, is it truly accurate? Second, are we romanticizing that ideal a little?
There may be some association with mental illness and creative artists, but there’s an old ideal that great art is born out of suffering. We tend to excuse an artist’s self-destructive behavior in the name of art. How many artists have we lost to drug abuse and alcoholism over the years (not to mention suicide), artists that were self-medicating, looking for a way to cope with their disease? Linking mental illness to creativity has a dangerous logic: If we treat the disease, will we lose the talent? I would prefer artists realize that they can still be creative and not have to endure their illness untreated.
I’ve heard several bipolar writers mention difficulty in writing. In a manic state, they can churn out pages of material at an impressive rate, but most of it is senseless and not worth keeping. In a depressive state, they may write something astounding, but it takes all of their energy to eke out half a page.
I don’t know. I can’t claim to be an expert on the subject. Am I ranting about nothing?
Most of my friends and acquaintances are seriously involved in one or more of what we call the arts: theatre, writing, graphic design, photography, painting. Among them, there is a very high percentage of — not sure what name to give — misfits, perhaps, or outliers. GLTB, alcoholic, bi-polar, schizophrenic.
Maybe what we call art is misfits’ way of trying to belong, to enter the “normal” world, to certify their legitimacy.
Or maybe the “normal” world is populated mostly by rather dull, unimaginative people, who rely on misfits for entertainment and enlightenment.
Indeed, I don’t think that being creative leads to mental illness or vice versa. Assuming there is a greater incidence of correleation, more likely is that there are a common underlying cause than one drives the other. Ergo, you can be happy and productive at the same time.
I’m not even sure if there is a greater incidence in ‘creatives’. I suspect that ‘creatives’ are just more likely to be ‘visible’ than, say, accountants.
I believe the relationship between mental illness and creativity is interesting. It remains controversial. The association between creativity and bi-polar disorder, in particular, seems considerable, though statistically unproven, and probably unprovable.
I know so-called “creatives” who are happy and well-balanced, some even excessively so. But it’s hard to ignore the fact so many “creatives” appear to have monsters sitting on their shoulders. In the case of writing, and probably other forms of creativity, perhaps that’s not so surprising. Mostly, they are weird, solitary, consensus-defying, brain-devouring activities. Even in TV, a more team-based activity, we used to say that a true star had to be mad from the outset to be good. If, most unusually, they weren’t, the experience of stardom almost always made them so.
Not surprising, then, that so many creatives, when asked for their motivation, answer “Revenge”, or make statements like Alan Bennett below. (He went on to say: “If your parents don’t fck you up, then as a writer you’ve got nothing to go on, and then you’re really fcked up. And if they do fck you up, then you’re fcked up anyway.” )
I find the intimation that creativity has some causal link with mental illness to be problematic at best, and sloppy in the worst examples. While I don’t have any evidence or studies to back up my hypotheses, it seems self-evident that the arts, especially those which can be practiced sporadically and in isolation, are ideal for people who go through ‘episodes’.
Imagine what would happen on the construction site, the hospital, or the bank, if they tolerated wild mood swings, lethargy, substance abuse, irregular attendance, or any kind of destructive behavior. Does the novelist get fired stumbling up to his desk drunk out of his mind? Will a painter be reprimanded for sitting and staring at a blank canvas for a month, cursing demons for kidnapping her muse?
The arts, in my opinion, provide occupations and communities that tolerate odd and even unpleasant behavior so long as patrons deem that person’s art to be of value. Mentally ill artists can find a refuge from the strict hours and behavioral norms foisted upon the average office worker, or debutante, or salesperson.
However, I also don’t think that mental illness causes a person to be a great artist any more than amyotrophic lateral sclerosis leads people to become world-renowned physicists. There are plenty of people who use their manic episodes to clean their houses, not to sculpt 16 foot-tall marble nudes. There are drunks who write best-seller horror novels in spite of their severe inebriation, not because of it. Sure, there are treatments that leave a brilliant brain numb and fogged over, but there are others that allow a person to focus on the task at hand. Like just about every other problem facing the human race, the mental illness/artistic talent link is complex and nuanced. We can’t just say that great art comes of great suffering and shrug off the struggles that depression or substance abuse cause; that attitude is harmful to both the people who are suffering, and to art as a legitimate pursuit for those of us who are lucky enough to avoid that suffering.
We could look at some lists of people who have suffered from Bipolar disorder. WE may notice that the trend is usually “creative” careers…
Now here is the kicker. Bipolar Disorder is said to effect 1% of the population.
Abraham Lincoln (leader)
Adam Ant (musician)
Agatha Christie (writer)
Axl Rose (musician)
Buzz Aldrin (other)
Drew Carey (actor)
Carrie Fisher (actor)
Edgar Poe (writer)
Gordon Sumner (Sting) (musician)
Hans Christian Andersen (writer)
Heinz Prechter (entrepreneurs)
Isaac Newton (other)
Jane Pauley (other)
Jean-Claude Van Damme (actor)
Jim Carey (actor)
Jimi Hendrix (musician)
John Dally (sporting stars)
Jonathan Hay (sporting stars)
Kay Redfield Jamison (other, writer)
Kurt Cobain (musician)
Larry Flynt (entrepreneurs)
Liz Taylor (actor)
Ludwig Boltzmann (other)
Ludwig Van Beethoven (musician)
Marilyn Monroe (actor)
Mark Twain (writer)
Maurice Benard (actor)
Mel Gibson (actor)
Micheal Slater (sporting stars)
Napoleon Bonaparte (leader)
Ozzy Osbourne (musician)
Patricia Cornwell (writer)
Patrick Joseph Kennedy (leader)
Patty Duke (actor)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (writer)
Rene Rivkin (entrepreneurs)
Robert Downey (actor)
Robin Williams (actor)
Sinead O’Connor (musician)
Sophie Anderton (other)
Stephen Fry (actor)
Ted Turner (entrepreneurs)
Tim Burton (writer, other)
Tom Waits (musician, actor)
Thomas Stearns Elliot (writer)
Vincent Van Gogh (other)
Virginia Woolf (writer)
Winston Chruchill (leader)
Wolfgang Armadeus Mozart
And here are some famous writers with bipolar disorder all of which are creative.
H = Asylum or psychiatric hospital
S = Suicide
SA = Suicide attempt
Hans Christian Andersen
Honore de Balzac
Arthur Benson (H)
William Faulkner (H)
F. Scott Fitzgerald (H)
Lewis Grassic Gibbon (SA)
Maxim Gorky (SA)
Ernest Hemingway (H, S)
Hermann Hesse (H, SA)
William Inge (H, S)
Charles Lamb (H)
Malcolm Lowry (H, S)
Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain)
Joseph Conrad (SA)
Isak Dinesen (SA)
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Eugene O'Neill (H, SA)
John Ruskin (H)
Jean Stafford (H)
Robert Louis Stevenson
Tennessee Williams (H)
Mary Wollstonecraft (SA)
Virginia Woolf (H, S)
Returning to this thread after a few days away, I’m conscious how clinical and dispassionate my own contributions may sound, especially to any sufferers reading this.
Having knowledge of depressive disease in general and bi-polar disorder in particular, I can only say how dreadful and life-consuming these conditions are, and sufferers have all my sympathy. As Martin says above - imagine being ill for 40 years…