Exploring the Crossroads of Depression, Medication and Art

starry night
Detail of The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh

Creative people dealing with mental health issues face a double-edged sword: those issues may make it difficult or impossible to channel our creativity in any useful way, but we’re constantly exposed to the idea that treating them will take away our talents. We look at Vincent Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain and wonder if the art they created would have been possible if they had received more support and care.

We often fail to wonder what more they could have achieved if they’d lived longer, happier lives.

Flavorwire’s Moze Halperin discussed that issue with the artists of Fountain House Gallery, which seeks to provide space for artists with mental health issues to explore and exhibit their artistic visions without romanticizing the issues themselves. It’s an interesting dilemma, particularly when audiences seem to value human suffering.

[Ariel Willmott, Fountain House Gallery’s director] explains that there’s a balance between “promoting your work and navigating that world of sob stories and feeling objectified by the desire for [those stories].” She notes that although courting exposure through the “outsider art” label seems necessary, it can also lead to awkward moments with buyers: if a piece looks too skilled or reminds them of an artist who’s found mainstream acceptance, they might question its “outsider” status. “‘Well, I could tell you the sob story about his life and how he struggles and was isolated and institutionalized,’” she says, describing how those conversations tend to go. “People seem scared that someone will sneak in that’s had some kind of arts education — like God forbid that person wasn’t just totally isolated their whole life and only suffered. It’s really bizarre.”

That fixation on suffering is not just harmful–it’s generally entirely wrongheaded. There are undoubtedly artists who thrive artistically while suffering, but most people are more capable of creating when they’re at their best, not their worst.

In an email to me, [psychiatrist and poet Richard M. Berlin] writes: “The main common factor in highly creative people is motivation. It’s the Thomas Edison ‘1% inspiration, 99% perspiration’ [factor]. It’s tough to be creative when you are having symptoms of mental illness, and the poets in my book were almost unanimous in their experience of medications being helpful for their creativity, mainly by not being so impaired by depression, anxiety, etc.” He notes that, of course, medication is individualized and needs to be “fine tuned” and monitored “to avoid side effects that can make a person dull.” In his book, he quotes Plath, espousing a sentiment that was echoed throughout all of my interviews: “When you are insane, you are busy being insane — all the time… When I was crazy, that’s all I was.”

When we as a culture fixate on the stories of people who created great works of art and suffered under the weight of mental illness, we ignore the stories of many more artists who created their own great works while enjoying the benefits of modern psychiatry. Those stories might be less tragically romantic, but they are the ones we’d all be far better off trying to emulate.

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