Mental Health and Art: Is There a Connection?
Is there a connection between creativity and mental health?
Is there a connection between creativity and mental health?(Photo: iStockphoto)

Mental Health and Art: Is There a Connection?

Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Leonora Carrington or Sylvia Plath. All these artists had something in common, besides of course their stupendous talent. They all suffered from serious mental health ailments that ranged from hallucination, schizophrenia to neurosis and clinical depression.

Art and mental health - the two often become inextricable from each other. But are the two really connected? What is our fascination with romanticising the relationship between creativity and mental health?

Too caught up to read? Listen to the story here:

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‘No Two Minds Are the Same’

Reshma Valliappan, artist and mental health activist, while talking about her own struggles with schizophrenia, says that no two minds are wired the same. She adds:

To me, mental distress is nothing, but insecurity. Insecurity can show up in many ways and is a part of our daily life to be recognised and worked with. When some of us have our realities triggered and messed up because they do not meet our idea of a secure reality, we experience this breakdown of our mind, which is called a mental disorder. Painting allows me to repaint these realities or make newer ones up and provide that security of a reality we don’t have control over.
Reshma Valliappan
“Creativity is not necessarily limited to the world of paint brushes, and songs”, says Reshma.
“Creativity is not necessarily limited to the world of paint brushes, and songs”, says Reshma.
(Photo: iStock/Altered by The Quint)

She further comments on the creative process and adds:

Creativity here is not necessarily limited to the world of paint brushes, and songs. I use the creative part of my mind to even solve problems, to come up with innovative ideas, patterns on problem solving and analysing a human behaviour.
Reshma Valliappan

Commenting on the same, art therapist Sonia Bhandari says we need to look at creativity as something internal and innate.

The choice of fields may be different such as one could be highly creative in working on machines, the other could be creative in expressing oneself in words, one can be creative in expressing through performing arts and so on.
Sonia Bhandari

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Linked or Not? Answers a Doctor

While Reshma speaks from a space of experience; would a doctor agree with her? Dr Sameer Malhotra, a leading psychiatrist in Delhi, affirms that mental states may have a direct influence on one’s creativity and artistic output. But is there a clear connection between art and mental health?

Creativity is an aspect of mental health. It also reflects on one’s creative potentials and abstract ability. Drawings, paintings, poetry, writings and other art works are reflective of one’s mind set and mood. It has been observed that one tends to project one’s feelings/thoughts on to pieces of art.
Dr Sameer Malhotra, Psychiatrist, Max Hospital

Dr Malhotra further adds that while genes may have a role to play when it comes to several mental disorders, a clear link between art and mental disorders remains one of the unsolved mysteries of the human mind.

At times severe mental health problems have been observed in people with high intellect. Researchers are working on the genetic predispositions, among other things.
Dr Sameer Malhotra

Bhandari, on the other hand, says that she has seen a direct link between art and her patients’ mental health. She adds that she saw significant progress when she began using art in her treatments.

When I began to use art therapy during the treatment, I discovered that the patients either were inclined towards creativity and were already using it to calm their minds. Or some patients had a creative side that was never explored or nurtured and they were finding it very tough to express their discomfort.
Sonia Bhandari

Art and Mental Health - More Than Neat Categories?

“The same part of me which is driven to suspicion or paranoia is the part of me which can question the human behaviour in detail, break it down into smaller minute pieces, analyse it, watch and observe it continuously, formulate hypothesis and another reality of it, tear it apart and put it together again. It is all the same - the story we choose to involve ourselves in”, says Reshma, when she talks about how she applies the same parts of her mind while dealing with her mental health as well as creating art and making day-to-day decisions.

A painting by Reshma Valliappan.
A painting by Reshma Valliappan.
(Photo Courtesy: Val Resh/Instagram)

The processes, she insists, are the same. The struggles, planning, analysing and disciplining are intrinsic to all three. But has art helped her cope, have there been unusual ‘bursts’ of creativity in specific mental states? Well, not really.

Talents I had as a kid which were considered useless engagements in a brat surfaced as my biggest healers (as I dealt with schizophrenia). Yet, there have been times art has failed. I could not join art based therapy or even drum circles would force me into further psychosis.
Reshma Valliappan

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When Mental Health Conditions Leave You Incapable of Creating Art

If there is a reader who might still see a romanticised connection between creativity and art, it should be pointed out to them that treatment of mental disorders, can often leave the patient too drugged or even physically incapable of being artistic.

Following my brain surgery with seizures, I developed synesthesia which disrupted even my creativity. I couldn’t paint the same because my own colours and mediums would trigger patterns and cause a seizure.
Reshma Valliappan
Treatment of mental disorders, can often leave the patient too drugged or even physically incapable of being artistic.
Treatment of mental disorders, can often leave the patient too drugged or even physically incapable of being artistic.
(Photo: iStockphoto)

She puts it succinctly and says that more than a cause and effect relationship, art has been a refuge, a friend of sorts.

When I have make up on and a good pick up line, it becomes an act. Without it, people think I am being weird.
Reshma Valliappan

Chemical Imbalances = Masterpieces?

Bhandari says:

Yes, a creative person if not understood and instead ridiculed for a passion which is not going to be recognised as an occupation, begins to retaliate by putting their whole life on creativity, hence causing more stress. This also accounts for the personality of a creative person who gets lost in their work which, in turn, begins to take a toll on their mind.
Sonia Bhandari

She insists that everyone is creative which further leads to mental disorders sometimes becoming a manner to vent internal stress.

For artists like Gogh, Woolf, who were already dealing with mood disorders, their art eventually helped them vent their dark moods. This became a pattern and they began to use their imagination in the most articulate manner. Therefore, the stories that were getting formed in their brain were also, no doubt, because of the chemical imbalance in the brain, leading to exceptionally bizarre outcomes that became extraordinary artworks.
Sonia Bhandari

Conclusion? There isn’t one. While health experts remain divided on whether or not creativity is linked to mental illness and vice versa, there is lack of any definitive, conclusive data on the topic.

Maybe one day we will have all the answers about the human mind, but for now we have to satisfy ourselves with this uncertainty.

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