Can the Celebration of Creativity Help Destigmatize Mental Illness?

Have you noticed that lately a lot of celebrities are speaking openly about their experiences with mental illness? A few examples that come to mind right away: Kristen Bell, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Demi Lovato, Brandon Marshall.  Many of these celebrities are well-liked - and because of that positive association, I have to think that their openness is playing some role in destigmatizing mental illness, which 1 in 5 adults in the US experience. It occurred to me that positive associations with creativity could also help destigmatize mental illness.

A few years ago there was an article in The Atlantic by Nancy Andreasen, a leading neuroscientist, about her decades-long studies on the link between creativity and mental illness. At the time, it struck me that this kind of research could help reframe mental illness by putting it in a positive light, and thereby destigmatize it. 

 From the article in The Atlantic I liked to above: images on the left show the brain of a creative subject (top) and a matched control subject during a word‐association task.

From the article in The Atlantic I liked to above: images on the left show the brain of a creative subject (top) and a matched control subject during a word‐association task.

Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of - it's like any other disease, but the shame associated with it often prevents people from seeking treatment or accepting a diagnosis. 

At the same time, as a society, we celebrate people who think differently. Geniuses are revered, creative geniuses even more so. So if there is a link between creative thinking with mental illness, is there a chance that the positive association would lead to more people accepting a diagnosis and seeking treatment?

 Einstein had a son with schizophrenia, and he himself exhibited some of the symptoms that can characterize the illness, though he was never diagnosed.

Einstein had a son with schizophrenia, and he himself exhibited some of the symptoms that can characterize the illness, though he was never diagnosed.

Andreasen writes, "Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses. Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill."

I'm oversimplifying this incredibly complicated topic, but I do think that considering the positive aspects of mental illness can foster a sense of acceptance in terms of the individual and collective experience.

Art is a visual manifestation of creativity, and we're always trying to qualify and quantify its effect on the viewer,  but maybe the fact that it exists in general - the fact that creative people are creating something that is seen as important by society - will eventually have an impact on how we view mental illness. 

 

ResearchNatalie Lemle