The Timeless Relationship between Mental Illness and Creative Genius

by Kevin Jokipii

The simplistic notion of the “mad genius” can bring with it the image of the reckless, bold, frenetic, and gifted visionary creating amazing art. Ernest Hemingway, Beethoven, Virginia Woolf, and Vincent Van Gogh are some of the many creative geniuses who also had mental illness, more specifically bipolar disorder. Legendary poet Lord Byron remarked about himself and his fellow poets, “Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more and less touched.” Bipolar disorder is a disease that has a lot challenges and shouldn’t be romanticized, as it can be a devastating illness when not properly taken care of, but there are definitely certain advantages that can come with it. Incredible insight, amazing artistic expression, and imagination are very common traits of those with bipolar disorder. This is as true today as it was during the ancient times of Aristotle. Aristotle famously said, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” And today, there are many famous creative people who have bipolar. These people include Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kanye West, Demi Lovato, Francis Ford Coppola, Rene Russo, Russell Brand, Mariah Carey, and Richard Dreyfuss.

Now, you can ask, why are there so many great creative talents who have mental illness? Some of the fiery aspects of thought and emotion, that people with bipolar have, can lead to a tireless artistic voyage – high energy, expansive mood, quick thinking, and unique insight; a sense of vision and grandiose fervor commonly come with the capacity for darker moods and bouts of madness. Bipolar can lead to more extreme experiences, and these extremities gives the artist a larger toolkit to work with when creating their art. From the deep depths of depression, to the incredible highs of mania, and the heightened imagination of psychosis gives the artist with bipolar disorder a larger scope of life experience in thought and emotion.

Great creative works reach people through the way they make them feel, think, and see the world. Someone with bipolar can bring that out of themselves because of their deeply felt emotions and heightened insight. The more unique the person, the more unique their art is. This uniqueness makes their art stand out. People with bipolar are quite often more sensitive to the world around them, and these powerful sensitivities are expressed in their art. They are able to touch so many with their art, because of the ways they are touched by the “fine madness” that fuels their creativity.

Mental illness can be a lonely journey. Even when someone with a diagnosis of bipolar has a supportive network of people their disease is essentially invisible to others, because it’s internal not external. It can be hard for others who don’t have bipolar to truly understand what they go through. This can lead to a proclivity for the person with bipolar to turn to art as a way to cope with their feelings of loneliness or being misunderstood, and as a way to express themselves. They are able to communicate with others on a grander scale. They can turn what could be considered a curse into a gift. This is motivation for them to create great art and share their gift and be embraced rather than stigmatized.

The manic phase of bipolar disorder can bring a flight of ideas and original thought that produces outstanding creative works. Although the bold, frantic, uninhibited side of the illness might produce art that seems too left of center, too reckless in its conception, the foundation is there for a genius creation, but it might need to be refined to truly be an amazing work of art. A common symptom of the depressive phase of bipolar disorder is excessive ruminations. These obsessive thoughts that the depressed person has can often lead to them constantly thinking about and analyzing past imperfections and mistakes. They are instinctively trying to figure out what single event or link of events led to their depression, even if it’s just their biological make-up and predisposition towards depression that’s the cause. It’s more genetic factors than environmental. This depressed state of mind can be channeled into the creative work that was initially created during a manic phase. The depressive phase and it’s obsessive thinking is what’s required to bring balance and refine that manic creativity, to make it a work of perfection.

The person with bipolar disorder and their tendency to strive endlessly for perfection takes over and they will focus solely on making their art work perfect. The depressive phase of bipolar is also a vital component for creating a genius work of art. And the person experiencing depression could have the tendency to want to find more meaning in their depression to cope with their inner turmoil. This can be their salvation. This quest for meaning will be put in their art work. Then the artist brings multiple layers to their creation, with their unique perception of the world and what it means to live and be human. The depressive state of mind adds to the toolkit, another extreme experience of thought and emotion from the other side of bipolar.

Now there’s a dangerous myth that medication for bipolar will dull creativity. Prescribed medications play a key role in the treatment of mental illness. Someone with bipolar disorder should work with a mental health professional to find the best medication regimen for their illness that doesn’t dull their creativity. Medication does not prevent the reception of those gift-like intuitions, insights, and creative expressions that all artists depend upon when creating their art. An artist with bipolar should know that creativity comes from a place deep inside them that is not affected by medication but is affected by the illness. The artist with bipolar will still be able to use their creative gifts when their illness is being treated with the right medication.

Someone with bipolar disorder usually has a great self-awareness. This is almost like a survival instinct they develop so they can decipher possible symptoms they might be experiencing. They want to recognize when they may be becoming manic or depressed, so they can get the necessary treatment and get their symptoms under control before the disease wrecks too much havoc in their lives. This great self-awareness is also an advantage when creating a work of art. By understanding themselves, they learn more about the shared humanity in the world. The constant self-reflection helps them understand other people as well. People diagnosed with a mental illness are known to have great amount of empathy, and this empathy is communicated through their art. We’re all human and dealing with this predicament we’ve been put in – this predicament called life. And genius works of art are gifts to our shared existence, and the joy we have with each one of our individual predicaments.

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