Mental illness has long been a taboo in society. No one wants to talk about because no one seems to really understand the illness. For those who struggle with mental illness, they don’t want to discuss it, due to stereotypes of people with mental illness. For myself, I used to think mental illness was linked with serial killers, so the very notion that I might have mental issues was absurd. I’m not a serial killer. My search history might disagree, but I’m a writer.

It’s no secret that writers or anyone with creative thinking have different modes of thinking. If something happens that draws a sense of dread or horror from a “normal” person, it might draw something close to inspiration for a creative person. I say “might” because creativity is different for each person. For instance, I look at the situation in politics and world order not in dread, but in inspiration for a possible modern novel. I haven’t written anything modern since the short story Learning to Duck at the end of Apache Pass. The point is the creative mind deviates from what is considered normal.

Mental illness differs from normal thought behavior, much in the same way a creative mind does. Psychology Today stated “creativity requires special or uncommon capabilities,” which share some similarities with mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder. The difference lies in the end effects of mental illness and creativity. In the same article, Psychology Today stated that the sudden burst of energy and rushing thoughts one gets from inspiration is similar to bipolar disorder. It made the point that in bipolar cases, they are involuntary and lacking in judgment; whereas in a creative mind there is an accomplishment or, at the very least, progress.

I was diagnosed with “significant” (I don’t know what that means) anxiety and depression, but while I was talking to a psychologist I’ll refer to as Dr. Freud, he asked me if I had racing thoughts and sudden bursts of energy. I told him I did, because I’m a writer and I’m constantly thinking about different stories, plots/subplots, and everything that goes into writing/creating. He believed I had bipolar or schizophrenia, so prescribed another pill on top of the other two medications I was taking. I took that third pill (I don’t remember what it was called) at night, and the next day I couldn’t do anything. My wife was out doing something for our church, and I could barely get up from the couch. I fed my kids breakfast and that was it. I don’t think I even had any coffee.

What is interesting to note, is the first study done to see if there was a link between creativity and mental illness was in 1931 called the “Lange-Eichbaum study.” It proves that for years before, the idea of the writer fighting their inner demons with whatever substance of their choosing was well-known. Writers like Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, painters like van Gogh, Michalangelo, and the great composer Beethoven were known to have struggled with their inner selves. But this surely can’t be the status quo. The Lange-Eichbaum study took 800 individuals who might be addressed as creative geniuses and interviewed them. Of these 800, only a handful were found to possess no traits of mental illness. Big Think states that “most recent studies have strengthened a belief in this correlation.”

Another way researchers have looked for this correlation, other than interviews and analyzing work for signs of mental illness (such as Virginia Woolf who committed suicide in 1941), they’ve looked for creativity in patients with mental illness. The results were slightly alarming. One study done by the Oregon State University showed that individuals with bipolar disorder were regularly being engaged in something creative at work.


It is well-established that people with affective disorders tend to be overrepresented in the creative artist population (especially those with bipolar disorder). Bipolar disorder may carry certain advantages for creativity, especially in those who have milder symptoms.

Katherine P. Rankin, PhD, University of California-San Francisco

In a controlled study done by the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, tracked 1.2 million individuals, incorporating many Swedes from the last few decades. They found that in a group of individuals with professions in the arts or sciences (dancers, researchers, photographers and authors), bipolar disorder was more prevalent. Authors seem to be the most hard hit, because they are more commonly found among those with psychiatric diseases, and also fifty percent more likely to commit suicide than those in the general public.

So, my fellow creators, what do we say to these things? As human beings with creative minds, we tend to think differently than others, we’re able to use empathy more acutely than others, and I believe this is what attributes to mental illness. I have no scientific proof, just mere speculation. I’m a writer, not a scientist. We see that of those effected by mental illness, many are in the creative or scientific fields.

Creativity is a way to work out mental illness. It’s not what defines us, but it is something we live with. Coping mechanisms only work until they don’t, and then people tend to turn to other things to help the cope. Drugs, alcohol (which is a kind of drug), and any other substance that helps them ride the wave out. Creativity for me is a productive means of riding that wave out. Think about it. If you have anxiety or depression, bipolar disorder, or anything that has certain moments that flare up and are really bad for you, one of the best ways that I’ve found to deal with those moments is to find something creative.

I’ve sat down and jotted absolute nonsense, both on my computer and a paper tablet. They’ve made no sense, but it gave me other things to think about. I don’t mean to say that this method takes the place of medication, since I myself take medication to keep my anxiety and depression in check. I have just noticed that meds don’t go the distance for me. If I don’t spend time in something creative, my mind goes into a dark place and is hard to get it out. Someone said of their wife that if it wasn’t for the creative arts of writing and music, they’d probably would have destroyed the world.

Above all…seek counsel. Many see it weakness to admit you need therapy or that you have something wrong mentally. I think it takes more strength to admit when you know something is not right, than to “fake it until you make it.” Faking it until you make it is not working anymore. We have too many triggers, too many competitions to see who has the most likes or views. I say this as a businessperson. I get excited when people like my posts, or when someone buys a book. It also crushes me when I don’t get any of that.

By Ethan H. Gaines, @lastbestpress and ethanhgaines@outlook.com

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