Can We, Please, Stop Pretending That Creativity Is Hurt By Treating Mental Illness?
Creativity is important to foster. But it should never come at the sake of mental well-being (and the myth that it “has” to is a lie.)
There has always been a prevailing image of the mad artist in the mind of popular media. And that image is there for good reason: history is full of artists, inventors, painters and other highly creative types who have also suffered from severe mental illnesses throughout their lives. However, as people who are successfully creative enough to become renowned in their fields are few and far between, it is no wonder why creativity is regarded so highly in modern society.
And such people are not, necessarily, indicative of the effects of more general creativity on the larger population. That is, there seems to be a tipping point. In everyday life, for the more average mind, creativity has mostly positive effects. It is not, unlike with creative geniuses, associated with mental illness; in fact, there is a decrease in mental deficits when the average person is found to be more creative as well as when a person takes measures to incorporate creativity into their life. However, the circumstances under which creativity is actually a positive force has been studied far less than the circumstances in which creativity is a negative force. Thus, to combat this misconception, throughout the course of this article I will try to illustrate the circumstances in which creativity is itself a positive force, the many positive effects that everyday creativity has on mental health and the ways in which the incorporation of such creativity into the lives of those suffering from mental illnesses or trauma can actually increase mental well being.
First, it is important to differentiate between the “everyday” creativity that is found to be conducive for mental well being and the type of creativity that is often hand to go hand in hand with mental illness. Most recently, Andreasen (2014) looked over some of the possible reasons why famous creative minds are often riddled with mental deficits. In the same article, Andreasen also brought up two types of creativity: “little c” creativity and “big C” creativity. As defined by Simonton (2003), “little c” creativity is an indicator of mental health and often is a good way of telling how well a person can solve a problem. “Big c” lacks the restraint of little c creativity and is more associated with major advances in any given field as well as being indicative of an overall more genius, novel way of thinking than “little c” creativity.
Now, the two different types of creativity, which cover vastly different personalities, is an indicator that not all creativity types are created equals; namely people who are found to have “big C” creativity often cultivate that association by actually successfully creating to the point of being renowned in any given field, while those who test high in “little c” creativity does not necessarily have that initial high test score translate into actual success in creative pursuits. Thus, when looking at the famous mentally ill artists and other creative types throughout history, by using the criteria of Anderasean’s definition of the two different types of creativity, it is only “big C” creativity that is often found to be associated with a predisposition towards mental illness.
In order to further differentiate between the sort of creativity associated with mental illness and the sort of creativity that is helpful towards mental well being, it is worth noting that in some occupations, those suffering from mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, are over represented, leading to skewed correlations between the two. (Kyaga, Laden, Boman, Hultman, Langstrom & Lichtenstein, 2012). However, Kyaga et al. (2012), who also admitted the previously referenced connection between occupational creativity and mental illnesses, also conducted a forty year longitudinal study on a very large sample size in Sweden in order to see if this correlation carried over to the larger population. The large subject pool used in the study was in order to try to correct what the researchers considered flawed past studies: studies that were hampered by too small of subject pools and too specific of actual subjects studied. The researchers found that except in the very specific occupation of being an author, subjects who engaged even in occupational creativity did not experience an increased risk of mental illness.
As to the above, it is worth noting that the researchers used a different definition of creativity to measure their subjects with: they used the “little c” definition of creativity. Notably, by using this looser and less specific definition, over the longitudinal study of 65,000 people, researchers did not find the correlation between creativity and mental illness that has been often remarked upon and studied.
So, it can be assumed that for a looser definition of creativity, there is less of a correlation between mental illness and creative pursuits. Yet, though the correlation between high levels of mental illness and aesthetic-professional creativity still dominates the public perception, as well as actual research, in the more general population, there has actually been found to be a negative correlation between mental disorder and creativity in day to day life. (Cropley, 1990). It was found that everyday creativity, which can be just as easily called “little c” creativity, had numerous benefits in fostering mental well-being as well. Russell Eisenman(2006) supported the idea of that when people suffer from mental illness in everyday life, they are less likely to be creative. In one of the studies conducted by Eisenman, psychotics were tested for levels of creativity in contrast to a control group, who were mentally sound. Their level of creativity was tested by story writing, which in turn was judged for complexity, unique form, and other stylistic choices that are widely accepted as indicators of creativity. However, Eisenmen found that, contrary to popular opinion, those who were psychotic were noticeably less creative than those in the control group.
Similarly, in the general population, divergent thinking, which is often an indicator of a creative mind as well as an indicator of little c creativity, is related to a decrease in overall mental instability. In fact, mental health is often defined as the ability to work creatively and productively in the larger population. (Gross &Munoz, 1995). However, there is a gap in the literature as to why creativity, in small doses, in such a positive force in everyday life there are numerous benefits of having a more creative line of thinking in everyday life. Perhaps one reason is that, in the more general population, such divergent thinking, unmagnified to the extreme levels of artists, can result in more ways to solve problems and less time to be bored. Similarly, as creativity is shown to be a more positive force when it is used non-vocationally, the effects of it on mental health only seem to come when a person does not commit completely to creative drives and desires.
Perhaps more importantly than the positive effects of creativity on the average population and, certainly more contradictory to popular opinion, where there is the romantic and tragic notion of the self-harming artist, being able to engage in creative output was shown to be helpful for mental health for those already struggling with mental illnesses. One study by Laurence Claes, Walter Vandereycken and Hans Vertommen (2005) found that girls who were in the process of recovering from serious eating disorders while they engaged in creative expression, namely through the art of tattoos and other forms of body modification, did not engage in self mutilation nearly as much as the girls recovering from eating disorders who did not do so.
In the case of the girls, communicating through a creative and, admittedly, lesser known medium (body modification), was a way to regain control over their bodies following a severe loss of it during the extents of their eating disorders. It is worth noting that unlike many studies that focused on the correlation between mental well being and creativity, in this study, the creative expression the girls engaged in was not implemented by researchers. That is, the girls chose to use a more creative and less harmful way to express themselves and regain control over their bodies by themselves which, in turn, had unexpected positive effects on their mental health.
Much of the research on the positive benefits of creativity has focused on the multitude of ways in which creative expression can help those suffering mentally as a result of physical disabilities and chronic illness. There is a growing body of research that focuses on the numerous ways that one can “heal” through creative output, of which there is a significant emphasis on the ways one can mentally heal through artwork. Recently, an in-depth study (Reynolds & Prior, 2003) focused on the shift in perspectives caused by artwork in a small population of women who were dealing with severe disabilities. The positive effects were numerous; around half of the women who participated in the study only took up creative expression after falling ill and almost all of the women found that creative output, on average, served to help compensate for what they had lost as well as helping to create an overall more positive self identity. As those with severe disabilities often become depressed after the onset of the diagnosis, this is an invaluable result. Similarly, women who engaged in needlework in response to serious physical illnesses also experienced a shift towards a more positive mind-set. (Reynolds, 1997) Though the women had a variety of physical illnesses that ranged in terms of severity, the results of engaging in such creative pursuits were remarkably similar. The women found that needlework not only helped them to manage pain but that engaging in such work also helped their self-image as well as overall mental outlook on their situations. Overall, taking up creative pursuits increased their mental welfare, which in turn helped the women in both studies deal with their physical diagnoses.
However, another study by Zausner (2010) found that, in some cases, a diagnosis of physical illness would correlate with a predisposition to choose a career in art after the diagnosis. A career in creative pursuits, as stated in the study, worked better with the mindsets of the physically ill as it is more accommodating; the artists in the study seemed to experience a switch career paths following their diagnosis in order to better suit their new lives and overcome limitations. Furthermore, artists that were diagnosed in the middle of their careers switched to new mediums, showing the ways in which creativity can be channeled to reestablish control over a situation. The artists in this study, though certainly more professional than the artists’ in the previous two studies, still experienced similar results on their mind-sets: the shift towards creativity helped them regain a more positive mind set as it represented a shift in control.
While creative expression has been proven to help those who are dealing with physical disabilities, such kinds of creative expression, when incorporated into the lives of populations at risk for depression, is also shown to prevent the onset of depression as well as combat any existing mental illnesses, especially anxiety and depression. In the elderly population, a group that is often at risk for severe depression as well as more likely to commit suicide than other age groups, the introduction of creative activities, which ranged from writing to expressive story telling and dance, correlated with an increase in morale as well as a decrease in depressive states (Greaves & Farbus, 2006).
Creative pursuits were hypothesized to lead to numerous benefits, including helping elderly populations retain their cognitive abilities as well as experience a shift in self perception: elderly people who engaged in such actives rated themselves as more useful, with an increase in overall self worth. Furthermore, subjects who tested highly on creativity measures were also found to experience less mental declines during the aging process than those who ranked lower on the same tests (Turiano, Spiro & Mroczek, 2012). The same study also found that for every increase in standard deviation for creativity, there was a 12% decrease in mortality risks. For most people, it appears that creativity has numerous positive benefits on both the mental response as well as the physical process of aging.
On the same vein as helping at risk populations, creativity can help people recover mentally when they are introduced into situations in which there is significant psychological trauma. There have been numerous studies that focus on the negative correlation between expressive writing, which is the art of writing out one’s inner state, and overall levels of stress in everyday life. When creative expressive elements were implemented in children in a war zone, the children who engaged in such activities experienced less of a chance of developing PTSD, depression and anxiety(2001).
However, the positive results were slightly confounded by the fact that the same study also included cognitive behavior techniques for the children who engaged in creative expression. Even so, however, it is notable that there is a consistent correlation between creative measures being incorporated into the lives of those on the risk for or already suffering from mental illness and an increase in mental well being. Similarly, in prison populations, art therapy has been shown to reduce the overall risk of depression as well as help decrease levels of already existing depression.(David Gussack, 2009.) A small study showed that prisoners who engaged in art therapy even briefly still experienced a marked decrease in their levels of depression.
Pennebaker and Chung ( 2007) also found that there was a certain sliding scale for those who had experienced traumatic events. That is, when people were more likely to keep quiet about a traumatic event, they were also more likely to suffer more health ailments, both mentally and physically. Creative output, such as the aforementioned expressive writing, served as a counter to this self imposed and harmful silence. As a result of this connection, a study was conducted in which a variety of subjects, from prisoners to children to students, were given the explicit instruction to write about their most traumatic secret. Both the mental health and the physical health of those who participated in such expressive writing improved, especially in contrast to those who had similar traumatic experiences but did not do so.
Similarly, in response to the possibility of significant physical disabilities or, even, death, creative expression, especially channeled through expressive writing was shown to have a uniformly positive effect on soldiers dealing with PTSD and other mental illnesses related to their time on the battle field. ( Pennebaker & Chung, 2007 ). In fact, researchers have found that one of the reasons that some people are less likely to suffer mental illnesses following stressful situations that have caused psychological trauma is their predisposition to engage in creative pursuits as a form of self expression in response to such events. It is also worth noting that, due to the close link between mental disorders and physical illness, those who engaged in expressive writing following traumatic events were also less likely to suffer physical symptoms as a result. Over the years, meta analysis of other experimenters who tested the positive effects of expressive writing on health found similar results.
Forgeard and Eranda Jayawickreme (2014) also studied the link between post traumatic growth and creative expression, though not necessarily in terms of expressive writing. The researchers looked at well known artists, who had often experienced traumatic life experiences, and hypothesized that their work was a result of the artists trying to come to terms with these negative experiences. In regards to this hypothesis, Forgeard and Jayawickrememe looked at survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. While most of the survivors who came to mental health clinics did not experience an increase in creativity afterwards, about 25% of them experienced a small increase. This suggested that, in order to deal with the admittedly horrific situation that was the 1994 genocide, the survivors had channeled their horrific experiences into creative expression, and, by extension, creative growth. The results of this study suggests that even without intervention on the part of professionals, ordinary people who have been dealt with horrific circumstances will turn to creativity in order to try to deal with what they have been through.
Similarly, a growing body of research on posttraumatic growth suggests that creative pursuits, despite the medium that they take place in, following traumatic events is conducive to overall well being (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Such expression after traumatic experiences has been shown to help people across cultures cope in more effective ways. It is worth noting that many of the personality traits found to correlate with successful posttraumatic growth, such as openness to experience, resilience and sense of coherence are also found to correlate with high levels of “little c” creativity, indicating a connection between the personality types who will seek out the latter in response to the former. (Simonton, 2003., Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004.) Finally, though such attempts to deal with traumatic experiences can also correlate with the aforementioned expressive writing as well as with more general and less targeted increases in creativity.
However, one must keep in mind that though the chronically ill or severely ill experienced numerous benefits from the introduction of creative expression in their lives, these patients did not initially seek it out the way very creative types do. While the needlework women eventually experienced a somewhat vocational shifted, due to their new limitations, towards needlecraft, prior to falling ill, they did not work towards pursuing a career in artistic pursuits, the way highly creative types often due.
For instance, one study found that the very nature of poetry as well as the oft written about subjects (death, loss) might attract individuals who have a predisposition towards the morbid caused by mental illness initially. (Kaufmen & Baer, 2002.) In contrast, the women who engaged in needlework did not have a predisposition to do so; they did so in response to a change in circumstances that caused them to need an activity to compensate for their loss and subsequent negative life outlook. Even the study by Zausner showed that the artists who experienced a career shift in diagnosis did so in response to the diagnosis and not any third factor associated with big C creativity. The difference between the two types of pursuits is especially significant as it appears that when creativity measures are implemented in healthy doses into the individual’s life, mental well being increases though when creativity is the driving force behind a certain lifestyle, there is often a correlation with mental illness that can cause an individual to turn towards different forms of art in order to try to contend with their mental state.
Once more, while there is a growing body of literature that focuses on the numerous benefits of implemented structured creativity on mental health in the larger more generally mentally unwell population, the bulk of current research focuses on the link between creativity and mental illness in highly creative individuals. Though, as earlier stated, there is no doubt a strong correlation between the two, the prevalence of this correlation often, wrongly, overshadows the numerous positive benefits creativity has on the general population. To put it simply, there is a large gap in the literature on the ways that creative expression or “little c” creativity can improve the mental well being of the general population without being implemented through government programs or through psychologists directly trying to tests theories. There is also a lack of research on the correlation between mentally healthy members of the population and high levels of everyday creativity in general.
There are also potential confounds on why the results on mental well being are so uniformly positive when creativity is introduced into the lives of those suffering from mental illness. When creativity is incorporated into ones’ day to day life, creativity can not only have directly positive effects, but have secondary effects that also help one’s mental well being. For instance, in the study by Greaves and Farbus (2006), the researchers found that once creativite activities were incorporated into the lives of senior citizens, the seniors increased in social activities as well.
Similarly, chronically ill and disabled patients who took up creative hobbies increased their social circles when they did so which in turn lead to a more positive outlook on life as well as an overall increase in mental health. Of course, then, it might be easy to misconceive the positive effects that are associated with creativity as actually a result of the social increase. However, in the study on art therapy in prison populations, prisoners did not experience the increase in social circles that the other populations did but still experienced an overall increase in mental health; this shows that there is a unique correlation between creativity and mental well being that can not be attributed solely to an increase in social activity.
Overall, it would appear that creativity, when it is not strictly defined in the often genius level terms found in many research articles as well as in popular opinion, is helpful for mental well being. From simply having a negative correlation to mental illness in the general population to having many positive effects on the mental well being of those suffering from multitudes of different traumas, as well as a general trend towards decreasing the risks of mental illnesses across at risk groups, the benefits of creativity are numerous. Though there is still a stigma towards creativity in terms of the oft cited correlation between genius level creativity and mental illness, recent articles suggest that, more and more, creativity is being seen as a favorable force in many situations. There is, after all, a reason why creativity is a trait so highly valued in society and perhaps, as these recent trends in research continue, the positive effects of creativity on mental well being will finally be brought to light.