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.






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