If you suffer from a mental illness, there’s no getting around it—life is more of a struggle.
Depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other similar conditions can interfere with all aspects of your life, from your social life to your romantic life to your work life.
So I’m not going to pretend that there’s a quick fix that’ll make life a breeze. But I can tell you that there is a trick that may make things somewhat better—and it’s not hard to do.
New research adds to growing evidence that there is a link between mental illness and creativity. And this research is telling us that tapping into your creative side—whether you realize that you have one or not—can help you think about your condition in a new, more positive way…help you build self-esteem…and help you enjoy life more than you otherwise might.
Mental illness can certainly be challenging, but depending on how you look at it, you may also have a certain gift…
THE LINK BETWEEN MENTAL ILLNESS AND CREATIVITY
The researchers in the latest study tracked nearly 1.2 million psychiatric patients and found that bipolar disorder was more prevalent in people who had creative professions, such as those who were dancers, photographers, writers and researchers, compared with people who had other professions. Additionally, they found that schizophrenia, along with depression, anxiety disorders and substance abuse, were more common among writers, in particular, compared with people who had other professions. In fact, authors were 49% more likely to commit suicide than people with any other profession. The study showed only associations, not cause-and-effect, but the researchers speculate that the underlying trait that makes someone creative may also increase the risk of having a mental illness. Prior studies have shown similar links—with one, for example, finding that how dopamine functions in the brains of highly creative people is very similar to what’s found in those who have schizophrenia.
Now, if you have a mental illness, you might be thinking, But I’m no more creative than most people…or even, I’m not creative at all.
But the fact is, there’s a good possibility that you are creative…but you’ve just never given yourself the chance to properly express that side of yourself and recognize it.
One mental health professional who strongly believes in this often hidden creativity is Judy Kuriansky, PhD, a clinical psychologist and member of the adjunct faculty of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City.
She told me that some of her patients with mental illnesses had to learn how to unlock the creativity inside of them—and that when they did, they were usually impressed by what they found. Many were not just proficient in the arts—but excelled at them. “When you succeed in any realm, including the creative one, instead of thinking of yourself as a loser or ‘sick,’ you feel more confident, accomplished and valued by others,” she said. “It also gives you a greater sense of control over your state of mind and your behavior.”
UNLEASH THE ARTIST WITHIN YOU
If you experiment with some (or all) of the following creative pursuits, said Dr. Kuriansky, you never know…you might develop a more positive way to define your illness—and yourself…
- Try writing. Virginia Woolf was bipolar, but she became one of the most famous and respected writers of all time when she picked up a pen. Whether you enjoy poetry, short stories, essays, novels, movie scripts or any other type of writing, sit down at your computer for, say, 20 minutes each day. Or if you need extra encouragement, start your own writing workshop with friends and share stories with each other weekly or monthly. Several of Dr. Kuriansky’s patients with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder have tried writing, and they have found that they thoroughly enjoy putting stories down on paper because it helps them organize their otherwise confusing and/or fleeting thoughts.
- Give music a go. Beethoven didn’t let being bipolar stop him. Singing in the shower, in a friend’s band or in a choir might make you realize that you’re a better vocalist than you thought. Or asking a friend or hiring a teacher to show you how to play an instrument, such as the guitar, might be the start of a new passion. One woman who suffered from manic states whom Dr. Kuriansky counseled started singing out her thoughts and then turning them into lyrics. She thought they were just meaningless ramblings, but a friend of hers (a jazz guitarist) was so impressed by her lyrics that he wrote music for them—and the two began their songwriting collaboration.
- Sign up for an acting class. Dr. Kuriansky told me about a couple she counseled in which the wife had a histrionic personality. “With her, everything was always a huge drama, and it was hard on her husband,” she said. Dr. Kuriansky encouraged the woman to take acting classes so she could channel her emotions in a more positive way. The classes enabled the woman to be praised for her dramatic behavior instead of always being criticized for it.
- Become an artist. There’s some debate about which mental illness (or illnesses) Vincent van Gogh had, but he did once cut off part of his own ear in a manic state. Despite that, he was an excellent artist. So why not buy a sketchbook…or a paintbrush and some water colors…and see what you can do? One patient of Dr. Kuriansky’s took up sculpture and squeezed her inner emotions into clay in such a powerful way that she ended up having her work accepted for an art show.
- Take photos. You don’t need an expensive camera to take photographs—taking pictures has never been easier or less expensive. You can simply grab your smartphone or a handheld point-and-shoot. Try taking a walk around your neighborhood for 20 minutes one day and snapping nature shots—such as a squirrel munching on some acorns in the snow or a lone leaf clinging to a branch or a cardinal chirping in a tree. If you prefer people as subjects, take candid shots of your family members or friends. Post your favorite shots in frames around the house and post them online if you are comfortable doing that. You might find a very appreciative audience…including yourself.