Five Myths About Artists and Mental Illness

 Mental illness seems to go with the arts like peanut butter goes with jelly. The perception is part illusion, part artists' public nature and part truth. First, in our everyday lives we don't see mental illness, not because it isn't there, but because it's being hidden or denied. When we do see it we think of those people as exceptions, when in fact they're pretty normal. Artists tend to be less shy about their suffering. The candor of artists combined with the tendency to hide mental illness in daily life makes it appear as if there's a much higher percentage of people in the arts with a problem than people in other walks of life. On the other hand, there is most likely a slightly higher (though not as much higher as it seems) percentage of people in the arts with mental illness. Mental illness makes people feel isolated and unheard, and the arts are all about expression and connection. Unfortunately the artistic community has some harmful attitudes about artists and mental illness.

1. All the great artists had mental illnesses, it's what made them so great.

All? Yes many great artists have suffered from things like depression, bi-polar disorder, post traumatic stress, alcoholism, the list goes on. Poe, Van Gogh, Beethoven, Georgia O'Keefe, Sylvia Plath–they're just a drop in the bucket of mentally ill artists. Just because there are many mentally ill artists doesn't mean they all were. Jane Austen may have had dark times due to her circumstances, but no one has posthumously diagnosed her with depression or anything else out of the ordinary. Stravinsky, Christina Rossetti, Coco Chanel, all eccentric but mentally stable. Bob Hope, Gracie Allen and George Burns were all great artists who lived relatively normal lives. And yes, they are great artists. Comedy is art. Get over it. And while we're talking comedy, how about Tina Fey and Amy Poehler? I'd like to point out that if you search “artists without mental illness” on the internet, you will only get artists with mental illness, because it's hard to search for a lack of something.

My point is that mental illness isn't required to be a great artist. I'm completely certain that poor mental health shapes the artwork of its artist. It probably contributes to the flavor, depth and wonder of their works. Any life experience will do that though. What is more important is to remember that mental illness doesn't have to stop a person from making something meaningful and important. One should also remember that mental illness often got in the way of great artists producing great art. They fell into periods of depression or alcoholism and didn't get a single piece of art out. In many cases their mental illness ended their careers by leading to their death.

To sum up, many great artists have had mental illnesses and many great artists have been mentally healthy. Mental illness may aid in creativity, but it isn't necessary to be a good artist.

2. If an artist with a mental illness is treated, they might not be a good artist anymore.

Freddie Mercury had weird crooked teeth. He didn't want to get them fixed because it might change his singing voice. Many artists have the same worry about their mental illness. The good news is that there's nothing to worry about.

If you use the pain and suffering you have or are experiencing for inspiration, that experience will never go away. Just because you've been treated for mental illness doesn't mean you'll forget what it was like. Treatment may make you a better artist because it gives perspective.

Being treated can make being an artist much easier in fact. The paranoia and self-hatred that comes with mental illness can make innocuous interactions with other human beings feel hostile. Artists need to take criticism which becomes nearly impossible if you feel that people are attacking you. Treatment can lessen the perception of hostility and help develop a sense of internal safety that makes taking criticism easier.

3. Art is more important than my mental health.

Art is good, but it is not the point of life. Your lack of mental health will eventually sabotage your ability to do art. See above two responses for reasons why. I honestly think that this attitude is more related to fear of what's on the other side of treatment than a love of art.

4. I have a mental illness, but treatment isn't for me. I'll handle it on my own.

If I had a dime for every time someone told me this or implied it, I would have enough money to buy all the corn fields in Iowa and turn them into tall grass prairie. I can only think of two reasons you would believe the above. Reason one, lack of money. Reason two, underestimating mental illness and overestimating your own powers of self-healing.

Reason one is tough. Money and art are rarely to be found in the same place. However, before you decide you can't afford it, take a look around. Kailen (my husband) has PTSD and we are very poor. The place he's treated at charges on a sliding scale according to income. It's still a little tight, but it's worth every penny. If you still can't find someone to treat you, or can't afford even sliding scale rates I strongly recommend doing whatever you can to afford treatment. This might mean taking a break from being a full time artist to work at a job that has a steady income or insurance. While taking a break might seem counter productive, investing in your mental health is investing in your artistic career in the long run.

Reason two seems more common than reason one. Mental illness is often discounted in our society and it can be hard to take your own mental illness seriously when it seems like no one else does. All I can say is that mental illness is deadly serious. It's also not really possible to treat yourself. There is no exception. If you know you have a mental illness, please, please take it seriously and get help from a trained professional.

5. My art will cure me.

Art can be therapeutic. It can help express emotions, it can make you feel less alone, but it isn't treatment. It might be part of a program of treatment. Art therapy is real and effective, but it isn't Art with a capital A. Art with a capital A is subject to criticism, it is intended to communicate with an audience. Art therapy isn't intended to be criticized it is intended to communicate with the self and express emotion. Trying to use art as therapy will lead you to feeling really terrible when someone criticizes your work because they are putting a value judgement on your feelings. The two are best kept apart.