Creativity and mental illness


Dear Artist,

Dr. Daniel Nettle, a psychologist at Newcastle University, and Helen Clegg at the Open University in Milton Keynes in the UK, have carried out an interesting survey on schizophrenics. This form of mental ill-health is so debilitating that those with the condition are often socially isolated, have trouble maintaining relationships and consequently reproduce at a much lower rate than the general population. However, cases of schizophrenia remain high — perhaps 1% of the population. “On the face of it, Darwinism would suggest that the genes leading to schizophrenia would eventually disappear from the gene pool,” said Dr. Nettle. The word is that they don’t disappear. They may have gone underground.

And just who are these silent “carriers”? In the survey, schizophrenics, regular folks, and yep, artists were tested. In 425 responses, they found that artists and schizophrenics scored equally high on “unusual cognition,” a trait that gives rise to the tendency to feel in between reality and a dream state, or to feel overwhelmed by one’s own thoughts. But the artists and schizophrenics scored very differently on something else called “introvertive anhedonia” — social withdrawal and emotional emptiness. Unlike schizophrenics, artists, in line with the general population, scored very low on this one. According to Dr. Nettle, the results suggest that the creativity of some artists is fuelled by the unique world-view that mental illness can provide, but without the debilitating part. Indeed, by directing their energy into artistic projects, these artists may be sidestepping their schizophrenic tendencies. Furthermore, the second part of the survey found that compared with the general population, artists claimed to have had twice as many partners since the age of 18 — and the number of partners increased with the seriousness with which they pursued their art.

Dr. Nettle believes that this provides an answer to some long-asked questions. Some of the genes that predispose to schizophrenia might be carried by artists — and in many cases will play a part in directing their creativity — but because artists tend also not to develop full-blown schizophrenia, they simply pass the bad genes onto their kids. Artists’ unusual take on the world and their ability to channel creativity, makes them desirable and therefore likely to be good breeders. In other words, artists, especially those who stand out, are in themselves aphrodisiacs.

Best regards,


PS: “What a pile of crap. Don’t expect honesty from artists at any time. Massive delicate egos and a myopic view of reality don’t make for any kind of study. Artists aren’t that special.” (Dinos Chapman, The Guardian, UK)

Esoterica: Whenever artists’ legendary hanky-panky is mentioned, as it often is, names like Picasso are dragged out. Fact is he was a complex of guilt, drive, manipulation, ego, sublimation and libido. But I’m wondering if a lot of artists might be unusually chaste. Somehow, so many of us just seem too busy. As usual, I could be wrong. I love being wrong. “I put my orgasms on canvas.” (Pablo Picasso)


Artists who succumbed under pressure
by Eric Maisel, San Francisco, CA, USA


Eric Maisel

Then they can become quite sane and savvy. It is also interesting to note that the neologisms (new words) that schizophrenics regularly create and use to confound listeners are often poetic, resonant, and downright brilliant. These two observations suggest that many schizophrenics may be artists who succumbed to internal pressure but who still retain their poetic wits and their wits in general. This may be why so much ‘outsider art’ is as powerful as the work of those primitives admired by modern artists a century ago.

(RG note) Therapist and creativity coach Eric Maisel has tackled the issue of depression and artists in The Van Gogh Blues. Many hospitalized schizophrenics remain out of touch with reality — unless it involves privileges.


Sex keeps the juices flowing
by J. Bruce Wilcox, Denver, CO, USA


original quilt
by J. Bruce Wilcox

What I believe and know is that, as an artist, to not produce is a direct pathway to a state of mental and emotional illness. So I have given up everything commonly understood as ordinary in order to stay mentally and emotionally well. I maintain my creative output on many levels as best I can, considering that I still exist in an unfortunate state of limitation. And I allow and experience my sexual expression at its maximum because that keeps my creative juices flowing and helps me to keep my balance in an otherwise profoundly difficult life.



Unusual behaviour
by James Fancher, Bellevue, MI, USA


“The thing”
original painting
by James Fancher

I’m so withdrawn it’s pathetic. Maybe it’s just that my paintings are the “shits” — to quote a phrase from your book. Okay. I’ve been tossed in the loony bin for suspicion of schizophrenia before, but I just thought jeez can’t these people here in California tell the difference between someone who’s insane and someone who’s drunk? So what if I’m walking down the maintenance walkway of the underground train station ’cause I got bored waiting for the train. Maybe I should just say yorga magga splat.


Wider study needed
by Katja Van Den Enden, Orillia, ON, Canada

I’m wondering why these researchers aren’t trying to prove their theory by looking at famous artists’ offspring. Are artists’ children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren schizophrenic? Why check artists and not scientists? Scientists have to be similarly open minded or they would not be able to ‘create’ their theories and break out of our established way of thinking. Maybe as scientists they never thought of that. Also it would be important to look at artistic children. Are we like this from the start or is our brain shaped by the things we do and are exposed to?


The demons attack
by Jo Ann Martielli, Ft. Pierce, FL, USA

I was struck by the irony of your letter of this early morning. It appeared at the same time I was composing what can only be described as my own testimony to the apparent facts of your article. I was writing of fear and paranoia to some friends for the sole purpose of ridding them, if only temporarily, out of my system — in order that I might continue to carry on in the pursuit of “artistic self-expression” — realizing, once again, that in so doing, the very act of “creativity” could be seen and felt readily. The process of creating is an attack on, and excavation of, the demons that intimidate and guard at the gates of the art that one seeks to attain, and how necessary is the fight to get through and pass them.


Meditation vs. medication
by Anonymous

I was diagnosed with manic-depression at 18. I am now 31, healthy, non-medicated and a high-functioning individual. This is in large part due to meditation, introspection and channeling what I discover within myself, along with my energy, into my art. My mother is another story — a highly creative and energetic woman, she has been medicated for clinical depression for 25+ years. She is socially isolated and artistically non-productive. I believe that if she could cultivate enough discipline and self-confidence for her occasional forays into the “craft” room, she might just be able to turn out some “art.”


Keeping busy limits disability
by Dana Bolton, ON, Canada

There is a history of bi-polar in both my parents’ families. They seemed to learn that, to avoid the negative aspects of this, one simply needed to keep busy and act on the creative whims. A sort of mental constipation occurs if you don’t keep it flowing. My family has never been afraid to try any new creative task, and I feel that is the key. I have one brother, and we are both artists, and we both realized early on that when the dark clouds move in, you had better get up and let out the creativity. We, as a family, have earned a reputation for being workaholics, but it is a healthy obsession in our instance. My father has always said he needs to retire so he has time for his hobbies. I feel we were blessed with fearless parents, who continually push the limits on creativity in every aspect of our lives and, as a result, we have learned to manage what could have become a disability.


Happy days ahead
by Linda Ricks, Fredericksburg, VA, USA

In books on the subject I always marvel at how the “right-brain” artist types are normally associated with a mental disease, whereas the “left-brain” analytical types never are. Is there a conspiracy going on? Following their own drumbeat, and not society’s boring beat, has always been the mark of artists. And so they get labeled as nutters. So sad. Our boring, follow the crowd, do-as-everyone-else-does society could certainly use many more nutters! Instead of seeing schizophrenia as a disease, it makes me wonder if any researchers have viewed it as evolution trying to take a “next step” to developing humans that can use a larger portion of their brain than we presently do. Heck! The human brain only needs a few billion years to work the bugs out! Eventually, a broader and more open-minded species of human will exist. Oh, what a happy day that will be!


Negative is positive
by Sandy Nelson, Kitty Hawk, NC, USA

As an artist and recently diagnosed as bi-polar, I have done a bit of research on the subject and discovered that what I considered in the past a negative is indeed, when managed, a plus. For a long time, I thought I was only a square peg in a round hole. What a relief to find that I am one of many creative people not fitting in the parameters of “normal” society. I would refer any artists who have doubts about their life and its relationship to their work to read the following:

Touched by Fire by Kay Redfield Jamison (all her books)

Brilliant Madness by Patty Duke

Strong Imagination by Daniel Nettle

Manic Depression and Creativity by D. Jablow Hershman

The Price of Greatness by Arnold M. Ludwig


Definition of mental health
by Sigal Blaauw, Zurich, Switzerland

I am not convinced that just because the mentally ill and artists both have an active fantasy life they carry a genetic tendency for mental illness. My own definition of mental health is the ability to pursue happiness as long as you don’t hurt someone doing it. Artists are as diverse as any group of engineers. Not all artists have great sex lives, or are social butterflies. The serious ones like Vincent don’t have time to socialize. This kind of research makes only chance connections. An artist can seem unhealthy if he is in a society that promotes ideas of work, earning money, feet on the ground. The same person in Maoist China who is thought to be mad, in NYC is thought to be divine!


Creative behavior
by H. Margret, Santa Fe, NM, USA


“Jazz Spirit Study”
acrylic painting
by H. Margret

Let’s finally look at exactly who defines reality… the “authorities” — which are church, government, state, medical industry, educational structure or even someone in the village. So, the artist somehow must learn to function creatively without losing a social base. Yet much of the finest talent on the planet was not considered sane, for example Van Gogh and the dancer Nijinsky. Is it an accident that drugs play such a huge role in creativity release on the earth? Maybe we need to consider that talent is just not sufficiently valued. And that there are repressive elements to maintain herd mentality because it is to some group’s advantage to prevent freedom of feeling and behavior. Conspiracy? Let’s just notice, like that guy up in Alaska you visited, there is a lot of money made and power taken by us giving up free will and creative behaviors.


Dangerous psychobabble
by Scott Menaul, Clearwater, FL, USA


Environmental technologies dramatization
original photo
by Scott Menaul

These sorts of quacks have already drugged many of our children with Ritalin, sometimes without parental consent or through threats of taking away our children. Now they are going after artists — the likes of you and me. Enough is enough. We all need to put our foot down and put an end to this dangerous psychobabble. Everyone reading this should write to their congressmen telling them to stop funding psychiatrists and “mental health” programs that are already wasting billions of tax dollars.





Good sex is creative
by Kay Cox, Seabrook, TX, USA

As an art therapist, I have often witnessed the narrow, sometimes fuzzy line between artist and schizophrenia. Many schizophrenics are incredible artists. From my standpoint, the more or less sane artist appears to have better control and is better able to maintain focus over his/her subject matter and execution than the schizophrenic. However, with some labeled schizophrenic patients, I question the label and wonder if they may not be just folks who are highly creative, don’t fit in and enjoy living on the edge. That is not to say that there are not some truly non-functioning schizophrenics but I have worked with some of those who are able to create interesting and imaginative work. Dr. Nettle might do well to discuss this with some of the art therapists in the UK As for the procreation ratio, good sex is an art form and is hopefully creative.


Love enables humanity
by David Wayne Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada


David Wilson in the studio

It seems the sex life of artists reflects an absence of relationships and not a multiplicity of them. A relationship is something that continues amidst change. Artists rarely have a stable income and are bound to lose as many partners as they find, except that actual love squeaks its way into the picture. Also, the notion that some people are schizophrenic, and many are not, overlooks the fact that conformity of thinking signifies normalcy, but not mental health. Might it not be that schizophrenics are lost in a mire of unanswered questions and reasonable suspicions that no one (they’ve ever met) can shed light on?

As far as genes go, we all have kooks in the bloodline, however obscured they may have become. I don’t believe in eugenics and am not fool enough to dream of a superior human race once the moron scientists “master” genetic manipulations. When all is said and done, it is still Love Itself that enables humanity, whether we call ourselves artists, schizophrenics or just plain ‘special.’


Questioning of purpose
by Chris Riley, Edmonton, AB, Canada

For the last two months I have been plagued with the idea I might be sick in the head. When some adversity strikes me it seems to take longer and longer to recover. I have been pinned to all the biographies of artists on TV lately and all suffered a depression and isolation of sorts. The question I have to ask is, “Is it atmospheric or genetic?” I search constantly for the truth and when I discover how dishonest the world is in general and how we as a society are allowing our souls to be swallowed up by gargantuan enterprise and worshiping at the temple of materialism and immediate gratification, I get extremely disheartened. I feel the need to find someone or something that assures me of the beauty in the world. Cause it’s everywhere. There is hope. I always believe in hope, that there is a future. I’m 42. I have no children. I always question my purpose here. When I show someone beauty, where they never thought to look, I feel good. Now if I go for any length of time without painting I get very anxious and everyone around me seems to be so lost. Of course it’s just me. I don’t hear voices out loud or see things that aren’t there. I hope I never do. But I absolutely feel no one “gets it”. And the fact that I need to keep it to myself for the most part (being in Red Neck Canada where at least in my family if you ain’t working 9 to 5 even at a dead end job you’re pretty worthless). My husband is my biggest supporter and wants to see me succeed as an artist. My Dad calls me a dreamer. I told him I liked that about myself and I felt sorry for him that he wasn’t one anymore.

I don’t mean to use this forum as therapy but, Robert, it really is. On many occasions I have felt that you wrote just to me. I am currently in self-induced isolation, here on our acreage in Alberta. Many things are becoming clearer now that I’ve cut off outside negative influences (well nearly) and just allow myself to feel and paint what I want without worrying how it will be received. Well I’m not there yet but it’s working. Still I feel a little like I need to apologize to people for doing what I need to do to become the kind of painter I want to be. I’ll get over that I hope.

(RG note) Thanks, Chris. And thanks to all artists who sent insights and life stories every bit as compelling as this one. We are indeed dismayed travelers on a strange and beautiful planet.





Marilyn with Barbados Pearl

Photo by Eric Brown
sculpture by A. A. Solomon, Lampasas, TX, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.

That includes Brian Lee Jones who wrote, “Life is pain, art is redemption.”

And also Joseph Tany who wrote, “All our discrimination is purely violent egotism including what they say about Schizophrenics or Artists. We enhance our capacity to discriminate with every new poll and with any new expert’s report.”

And also Tim Simmons who wrote, “I applaud science in general but the “genes made me do it” theory has really stooped to pathetic lows.”

And also Charles Webster who wrote, “Dinos Chapman, whom you quote, has not been known for any intelligence, wisdom or insight. Please let the YBA’s fester for three decades before quoting them. They will be gone.”

And also Jack Mulock who wrote, “I knew it! We’re all nuts, but lovable nuts at that.”




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