Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Mental Illness Isn’t A Superpower

The depressive poet. The hot-tempered painter. The manic and drunk writer.

Romanticizing mental disorders is so normal that hardly anyone believes that a creative genius can be completely pedestrian. Just a regular Joe who likes football, porno, and books about war.

Why is that so hard to believe?

Because gifted artists like Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Van Gogh cut off their ears, overdosed on pills, or wore weighted overcoats and walked into icy cold rivers. People who were considered pioneers of their field.

So it’s not too strange to believe groundbreaking art comes out of childhood traumas, depression, and other mental disorders.

But the notion that creativity and mental illness are linked falls apart when you look at the achievements of creative achievers who don’t have troubled minds or harsh upbringings.

Unless, of course, the creatively unsound far outnumber the creatively sound.

A study involving more than one million people did find a number of links between creative jobs and mental illnesses. Writers had a higher risk of anxiety, mental disorders, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies.

Which doesn’t bode well for level-headed writers gunning for the Pulitzer Prize. If you have all your marbles and an unspoiled liver, you don’t stand a chance.

But the study also found that people in creative professions as a whole were not more likely to experience psychiatric disorders.

Which makes sense. Research shows that people are most creative when they’re in a good mood. And mental illnesses such as depression or schizophrenia actually decrease creativity.

Hence why the most famous mentally ill creatives were bipolar. Stuck in a never-ending cycle of extreme highs and crushing depressions. Giving them short bouts of immense creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

Beethoven, Hemingway, Newton, and Schumann all seem to share signs of bipolarity.

There’s just one hitch.

The list of mentally ill creators who were successful doesn’t top the number of mentally sound creators. Not only did historical figures such as Shakespeare, Bach, and Jane Austen have a balanced mind. (Supposedly.)

In his book Flight from Wonder, Albert Rothenberg interviewed 45 living science Nobel laureates who all showed no signs of mental illness. 

Great art is not a result of mental disorders or personal tragedy. Although a unique brain or troubled past can help, it’s not a superpower. 

Art is a result of grueling hard work.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach