There’s an old adage that there’s a thin line between genius and madness, but I’m sure that it’s common knowledge that the same parallel can be drawn between creativity and vulnerability in mental health.
Anxiety, depression, psychosis and an entire spectrum of other mental health issues find fertile soil for growth among creatives, particularly within the dance community where routine is rare while deep introspection and unorthodox interpretations of reality are common place. This is nothing new; the image of the complex artist is one fraught with mental health issues, so the question isn’t whether a link exists but rather what are the links and how do we effectively engage them?
A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry reviewed a sample of 4.5 million people in Sweden (one of the largest to date) and considered whether they’d studied an artistic subject at university like art, music, dance, etc and matched this to their medical history. The results suggested that creatives were 62% more likely to be admitted to hospital due to bipolar disorder, 39% more likely to go to hospital for depression and shockingly that being creative increases your risk of schizophrenia by 90% compared to those studying non-artistic subjects. It’s worth noting that the rates of conditions like schizophrenia are still very low even among creative people, so many artists won’t be directly affected by this however: While creative people are naturally more likely to study art subjects, many creative people do not. So the new study is limited in that it used only degree level subjects as the sole measure of creativity and medical diagnoses as the only measure for mental health.
To be clear; although it’s common knowledge that Sweden has a higher than average suicide rate, this study specifically distinguishes between those who study arty subjects (like those mentioned above) and those who do not (like law, business, chemistry etc). The point being that even if more swedes have problems with mental health than everywhere else, on the whole there’s still a huge gap between artists and non-artists. This is supported by a range of other studies (some highlighted below).
In anycase, experience tells me that there are likely to be far more undiagnosed, non-academic creatives wrestling with conditions that they neither understand, nor have the support structure or mechanisms to effectively deal with.
So why does this connection exist?
Lead author on this particular study James McCabe told New Scientist that “creativity often involves linking ideas or concepts in ways that other people wouldn’t think of,” this is “similar to how delusions work – for example, seeing a connection between the color of someone’s clothes and being part of an MI5 conspiracy.”
This makes sense and it’s not unusual to find those invested in the arts seeing the world and everything in it as being part of a connected tapestry, often with some radical ideas that go largely unchecked. But I suspect that this is only one fragment of a spectrum of potential answers to a complex set of circumstances. My feeling is that mental health, much like physical health, is not dictated by any single thing. In many cases, there are a collection of conditions and stimuli that you’re able to process and deal with up-to a point and then you pass that point. This may include but is not limited to…
Environmental conditions such as poor nutrition, lack of sunlight, irregular working and sleeping patterns, lack of personal and economic security, drug and alcohol abuse not only add insurmountable pressures that can manifest in physical and psychological conditions but the lack of routine and stability can warp concrete ideas of reality.
The nature of exploration
Few occupations expose your vulnerabilities to your audience as performance and the arts. The process of peeling back our insecurities and exposing open wounds can be cathartic at times and extremely traumatic at other times. Without any consideration to the physical and psychological impact and recovery process alongside the work; it would make sense that there will eventually be some toll.
Another side to this tesseract is that deep down there is an inherent drive for approval wrapped in ‘Impostor Syndrome’. The anxiety of being a fraud can become acute regardless of success or failure. This is especially true where you’re constantly told that you’re a genius or talented but find this contradicting any measure of your reality. How can you be the best or even good when you struggle from one week to the next?
Culture, stigma and taboo
Culture and social constructs attached to our characteristics are also a double edged sword. While on the one hand they provide anchors to our identity, they can also inhibit our ability to process emotions and experiences in a healthy way. Attitudes around gender, race, and the taboos of having mental health issues are huge problems among specific demographics. e.g. If you’re young, black and male, chances are you’ll only be diagnosed in the course of being sectioned. Understanding how to process our pressures and knowing when to seek further help isn’t inherent to being human. It’s a learned and taught process that is held back by the stigma of mental health.
I use the word ‘process’ because mental health and emotional intelligence aren’t achieved or determined through a single act but are founded in an ongoing process of psychological, emotional and physical hygiene that requires regular maintenance and upkeep like anything else in life. The routine of brushing our teeth, washing our bodies, and eating healthily to prevent physical decay can’t be ignored nor can we ignore the psychological decay of the most active and sophisticated part of our anatomy.
Introspection, patience with yourself and empathy with others through this process would help to find balance.
The subject is vast and the implications huge so this is by no way a path to a solution but rather another voice drawing attention to the issue. I’m not advocating for dancers becoming mental health professionals but failing to accept that we are often the first point of contact for friends, students or even mentors showing signs of distress is not acceptable. What I am advocating for is preparing for those moments effectively both as individuals and collectively. As a minimum, whether this applies to you personally, or whether you mentor or teach, we need to increase our understanding and routinely discuss mental health in a meaningful way.
(2) – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10154775
(3) – https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/08/new-study-claims-to-find-genetic-link-between-creativity-and-mental-illness
(4) – https://www.nhs.uk/news/2012/10October/Pages/the-price-of-genius%E2%80%93creativity-linked-to-mental-illness.aspx