Mental Health and the Creative Mind

Did you know that May is Mental Health Awareness Month? It’s been observed in the United States since 1949, but I only heard of it a few years ago. It was started by a man named Clifford Whittington Beers, who was institutionalized in 1900 for depression and paranoia, and during this time began to observe the way the mentally ill were treated. By 1909, he had founded the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, which is known today as the Mental Health America organization, an outreach program that seeks to educate the public about mental health.

What does this have to do with being creative?

The creative mind has long been linked to high levels of depression and anxiety (my thoughts immediately turn to Van Gogh). A creative thinker tends to dwell on things that others would pass over or quickly let go, turning ideas and thoughts and hundreds of scenarios over and over in their minds. This leads to a depressive state that doesn’t come and go, but lingers for a long period of time, resulting in what we know as clinical depression often accompanied by Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). At least, this is the case for me.

When I started seeing a counselor eight years after my brain injury, I was fascinated to hear that though she believed my injury sent me over the edge into depression and anxiety, she would assume I already had the genetic makeup for these mental illnesses. Looking back on my childhood, now that I know more about my illnesses, I can recognize times when I was lonely or sad that were tipping dangerously close to depression. These happened when I was alone, free to churn those thoughts in my mind hundreds of times.

Though I didn’t start writing seriously until I was fifteen, I’ve been creating stories my whole life. Generating whole conversations that would never take place, daydreaming throughout my school classes, spending less time reading a book and rather inserting myself into the story as a character, taking the plot in my own direction.

I had too much free time on my hands, but it made me who I am today, mental illness and all. My creativity nurtures my depression and anxiety; after a high boost of creativeness, I often experience some of my worst low points in terms of brain health, and then the cycle repeats. This is why I struggle with self-doubt, why I have nine blog posts written up for this month but haven’t published any of them because I don’t think they are good enough, why I keep ignoring my WIP. There are two voices inside my head:  the ever-present devil on my shoulder who whispers, “You’re not good enough,” and the creative, colorful, extroverted angel, the one who has to push through the darkness to pump its fist in the air and shout, “You’ve got this! See, you CAN do it!” The latter doesn’t voice itself often, but it is always there whether I listen or not.

I rarely meet a writer who is not in some way tortured, whether by mental health, physical ailment, insomnia, or some other affliction. Perhaps this is why we can be awed by writers who write such deep, dark, moving characters that just seem to leap off the page, because a creative person knows the darkness of the human soul and understands what brings him lower or raises him up into the light. I know my own characters have improved in realism since I began to understand my mental health.

We can moan about the state of our minds and physical bodies, talk to others who go through the same thing, but it’s the act of finding the silver lining that is not only often lost but pushed aside. For me, that silver lining is when my mind kicks into high gear and I write for days on end, even if it means I crash afterwards, and it’s also the ability to connect with human nature on a different, more personal level. Rather than observing as an outsider, I have the privilege to experience what 20% of the world’s population struggles with on a daily basis and use that knowledge for the better (hopefully).

So, if you have a mental illness, or any other hindrance to your creativity, take a moment to focus on it. Rather than fight it, take a rest from the battle, accept it as a part of who you are, and explore how you can use it TODAY for the betterment of your craft.

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