The Art of Mental Illness

Frida Kahlo was an immensely interesting individual, and is famously recorded as saying that she did not paint her dreams or nightmares(as many might suspect, given the vivid, sometimes difficult to digest imagery), but that she painted her own reality.


Self Portrait with Monkeys, 1940, Frida Kahlo

As a result of a horrible bus accident she spent much time alone, recuperating, her body slowly knitting itself back together. She painted over 50 self portraits, many of them featuring components that spoke to her feelings of alienation. Many of her pieces are dark, and feature medical tubes and fetuses, acknowledgements of the multiple miscarriages she suffered as a result of the bus accident’s long term effects on her body.

frida 2

Without Hope, Frida Kahlo

Surrealism is built on creating the world in a tremendously unconventional way.

Trauma gives us a lot of creative fodder to sift through as we face the demons that guard those treasure troves.

frida by selma

The Broken Column, 1944; Selma Hayek playing Frida Kahlo in the film Frida, 2002

Though Ms. Kahlo’s introduction to painting was the result of trauma, its implementation would easily be classified under “art therapy,” as her circumstances would have led to depression, anxiety, hopelessness, etc. whether or not a genetic predisposition for mental illness was present. Although it is not the only controlling factor, mental illness is something that is frequently linked with art and creativity. (This article is fascinating).

Some of the first research in this area focused on simple correlation studies, looking for quantifiable evidence that mental illness is more common among creative people. In a 1987 study, Dr. Nancy Andreason of the University of Iowa found that a sample of creative writers had significantly higher levels of bipolar disorder than a control group of similar intelligence levels. Andreason discovered that the writers’ first-degree relatives were also more likely both to be creative and to be predisposed to mental illness, implying that the two traits are genetically linked. 

The unfortunate component comes in when one reality isn’t simply a creative expression of the same, larger, cohesive reality that others face, but a wholly different reality where only one participant is able to fully experience the details.

subjective reality

From a slide show on Gestalt methodologies in organization research

In the same way that schizophrenics suffer from hallucinations, seeing and hearing things which are not there, experiencing stimuli instructing them in a particular way, sufferers of mental illness can become so paranoid or fearful that they manipulate themselves into creating truths that justify or explain such significant reactions. Whether or not hallucinations are present, an individual can become steeped in such a thick fog of their own particular reality that they genuinely believe their versions to be true at the expense of anything else.

perception reality

There is a substantial difference between how we respond to symptoms of physical sickness and how we respond to symptoms of mental illness. Unless the responding person also has experience dealing with the complicated components of mental health issues, it seems much easier to extend sympathy with physical illness rather than mental illness. We respond to mental illness in a way that would seem really heartless if we applied that same “helpful advice” to physical medical issues:

mental physical illness.jpg

From the Huffington Post, What if people treated physical illness like mental illness? 

It’s interesting, with such a prevalent stigma against recognizing the extent to which any population is affected by mental illness, that there is kind of a “sexy, free pass” association for artists, like it’s an inherent, “occupational hazard” for those folks. As a result, mental illness tends to be more widely acceptable to acknowledge and recognize in the creative community. However, being mentally ill or eccentric can be seen as kind of an expectation.


perception of reality

Graphic from Understanding Conflict and War Vol 1: The Dynamic Psychological Field, Chapter 7: Perception and Reality by R.J. Rummel (original text 1975)

 More from the preceding article:

It is impossible for any scientist to quantify if and how a mental illness supplies an artist with innovative ideas, but some of the effects of mental illness on the artistic process are more tangible. For example, in manic-depressive artists, periods of mania are often associated with increased excitability, inspiration, and massive output. These emotions may come across in more daring, large-scale, or uninhibited pieces.

The manic artist may feel unfettered from societal expectations and norms, more confident in his most far-fetched ideas; at the same time, the energy of mania can help the artist focus and complete an enormous amount in a short period of time. Moreover, some manic-depressive artists also credit their depressed periods with giving them important insights that manifest in their work; as Jamison puts it, “many artists and writers believe that turmoil, suffering, and extremes in emotional experience are integral not only to the human condition but to their abilities as artists.”

Schizophrenia can also have dramatic effects on an artist’s work. As described, schizophrenia is characterized by disturbances in thought, language, emotions, and activity, often culminating in full blown delusions or hallucinations. In this way, the illness actually alters perception and cognition to such an extent that the individual experiences life in a unique way. Some schizophrenics are able to communicate the fantastical thoughts brought on by their disease into images, music, or prose. The result is often strikingly alien and thought provoking. The value of the innovation born of mental illness is illustrated in the rising popularity of “naïve” or “outsider” art. Pieces by painters like Henry Darger or Adolf Wolfli, two mentally ill artists dismissed as “crazy” during their own lifetimes, are now being bought at auction and displayed in museums.

anais nin

One of the most damning Catch-22’s is the treatment of mental illness: safety and responsibility is pitted against experiencing depth of both highs and lows, and the way that establishing a more “level” tone greatly mottles emotional affect.Seeking treatment becomes a double-edged sword for those who experience this duel reality:

Thus far, we have seen that manic depressive disorder and schizophrenia are both significantly more prevalent in artists than in the rest of the population, that neurologically they share similarities with the biology of creative thinking – in short, that these altered mental states could indeed contribute to creativity and artistic production. Knowing that this connection is scientifically supported, how are we to ethically treat these illnesses? The mere fact that devastating mental disorders might be able to positively affect an artistic career and to create treasured works of art makes the status of the disorders more uncertain.

Some scientists, like Prentky, dismiss such worries, claiming that the two conditions are only indirectly related, and that treating the disease does not affect the artistic side. However, many patients think otherwise. The painter Edvard Munch voiced the concerns of many mentally ill artists facing trea ment: “[My troubles] are part of me and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and it [treatment] would destroy my art. I want to keep those sufferings.”

Munch’s fears are not unfounded. While the debate rages as to whether illness can actually be helpful for creating art, as Munch suggests, medication does have measurably detrimental effects on artistic output. Jamison reports that manic-depressives treated with lithium often complain that life feels “flatter”, “slower”, and “more colorless”; the main reason for stopping medication is missing the hypomanic periods of intense productivity. Similarly, the antipsychotic medications used to treat schizophrenia primarily target the positive symptoms – delusions and hallucinations – but may not relieve the negative symptoms of reduced motivation and lack of emotion. Such treatment can leave the patient feeling sedated and uninspired – and, as a result, less able to create visionary artwork. For both of these illnesses, treatment is a risk with the potential to kill creativity and stifle a career. While in the most severe cases, medication is unquestionably helpful, for many mentally ill artists, the question of whether or not to medicate is problematic.

So even the mere process of seeking treatment is something of a difficult position to be in: on one hand, there is the well-being of the individual to be considered: are they experiencing realities that are harmful to them, or to their families, their relationships? Do mood swings (etc) cause significant damage to their well-being? Are they harming those around them by refusing to acknowledge the ways in which their illness affects themselves and others? These symptoms need to be understood in the context of their causes, but they also need to be addressed in a way that is actually beneficial to the mentally ill individual. This can be complicated, as there are many misconceptions about mental illness that we need to unlearn. 

social contructrion of reality

Medication is frequently the first go-to suggestion. Simply being medicated is not enough; it can work (sometimes, after a period of time, and with quite a few unpleasant side effects) but the best help someone can receive is room for proper self care, and responsibility to one’s self. Support from others should include space for someone living with mental illness to make their own decisions, but “support” should not enable a mentally ill person to make choices which are destructive or damning to themselves or others.

Being “mentally ill” isn’t a free pass for absolutely any behavior at all, it is a lens through which everyone must mindfully view the symptoms of that behavior.

I don’t think mental illness makes better art, and I don’t think everyone who makes art is mentally ill, but I do feel that creativity can be bolstered by exploring all the space within you, poking around the darker corners can lead to new inspiration, and can create a level of resolve you did not know you possessed.






Crisis vs Opportunity

Alt Title: Who We Are vs Who We might Become

“When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”

–JFK, 12 April 1959, seven months before the Cuban Missile Crisis


Stirring. Unifying. Inspirational.

And unfortunately, built on a fundamental misunderstanding of how characters translate into language, and is totally bullshit.

This quote is frequently taken out of context and used in motivational posters, to help us to see that our attitude profoundly affects our expectations and outcome in any given scenario. Basic psychology at work there, and using it to muster a populace looking to you for guidance is an ethically tenuous shelf to stand on.

There is a substantial difference in levels of ethics in play for a scope of using it to motivate the Free World vs using it to motivate Joe Corporation’s workforce.

“Because I said so” tactics are unnerving when used excessively, and to the extent that people are not allowed to claim the mental space traditionally reserved for free will.

Many workplaces are so heavily tiered that they must profoundly devalue descending strata of their workers in order to both justify the model’s complexity as well as to differentiate among establish Groups. It does, however, offer a very neat model for established divide of responsibilities, albeit one with tremendously significant side effects.

(Musical options now available in North Carolina, but for for a limited time only. )

Being given the task of setting our own moral compass without deviating magnets confounding the interactions required to do so, both well and effectively, is not so easily granted. However, we benefit from being bestowed the burden of this opportunity.

Being told in every way and with intense persistence that you are Some Such Way That Cannot Be Changed is a powerful incentive to fulfill it. Whether out of obligation, expectation, or misled revolt, we respond to the label and, more often than not, adopt it and adjust our expectations accordingly.

Being given options and opportunities produces an entirely different kind of person, regardless of the choices made, because the mere act of being able to make choices leads to facing consequences, which then leads to an understanding of where our reach of control ends and someones else’s (or no ones) begins. Assuming responsibility for what is actually yours to control and relinquishing responsibility of what is not yours to do or control is a big step.

Helping one another is everyone’s responsibility, to the extent that the actions taken in the name of Helping are, in fact, actually helpful to the intended recipient of the aforementioned Helping. Becoming familiar with this is also everyone’s responsibility. Living someone else’s life for them, is not.

The remainder of this post is passages from this article about Carol Dweck and her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.

Mostly I wanted to piggyback on something that is profoundly well written, but also to use this excellent topic of conversation to be more easily and readily acknowledged. Taking on too much, feeling too small, and feeling misled or lost all lead to misdirection and inaccurate allocation of responsibility and a skewed perspective.


And now, Ladies and Gents, more pearls of wisdom worth ruminating over, from Carol Dweck:

“For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value. How does this happen? How can a simple belief have the power to transform your psychology and, as a result, your life?

Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character — well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

Another portion;

“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you? The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

And another:

“When you enter a mindset, you enter a new world. In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.”

Another section from the same article that inspired this train of thought to fill to capacity before leaving the station:

The most unsettling finding came after the IQ questions were completed, when the researchers asked the kids to write private letters to their peers relaying the experience, including a space for reporting their scores on the problems. To Dweck’s devastation, the most toxic byproduct of the fixed mindset turned out to be dishonesty: Forty percent of the ability-praised kids lied about their scores, inflating them to look more successful. She laments:

“In a fixed mindset, inperfections are shameful
— especially if you’re talented — so they lied them away.
What’s so alarming is that we took ordinary children
and made them into liars, simply by telling them they were smart. 

This illustrates the key difference between the two mindsets — for those with a growth one, “personal success is when you work your hardest to become your best,” whereas for those with a fixed one, “success is about establishing their superiority, pure and simple. Being that somebody who is worthier than the nobodies.” For the latter, setbacks are a sentence and a label. For the former, they’re motivating, informative input — a wakeup call.”


It seems we are faced with a Crisis of Opportunities.