Mental illness is a common denominator among many of our favourite writers and artists from decades past.
by Emily Mary Chin, Carrybeans
There has been much discussion over the years regarding the seemingly inherent link between mental illness and creativity.
A study done in Reykjavik in 2015 drew the medical and genetic information of 86,000 people to pinpoint genetic variants that could increase the risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Results showed that creative people—whether painters, writers, musicians, or dancers—were 25% more likely to carry the gene variant as opposed to non-creative people—such as farmers or salespeople.
Whether or not this is true, we cannot dispute that mental illness does have an inexplicable impact on an artist’s work. And we can see it play out in the artists of our past.
Louis Wain is famous for his drawings of cats depicted in human-like situations. His foray into feline art first began as a way to entertain his sick wife, Emily. She had been suffering from breast cancer at the time and their cat, Peter, had been her only solace. And so, he drew countless sketches of Peter, all which Emily encouraged him to publish.
The lion’s share of Wain’s work was that of anthropomorphic cats // Credit: Louis Wain
The cats in his drawings grew more human-like as time went on. They began standing, moving and interacting more like humans as opposed to his earlier work depicting cats in a more naturalistic form. He went on to publish much of his sketches but sadly, Emily died before she got the chance to see it for herself.
He continued to draw for decades after, creating a name for himself and working steadily most of his life. But his personal life was never in as great of shape. After his wife’s passing, he developed progressively increasing levels of depression and anxiety.
Wain’s drawings evolved into more abstract, psychedelic styles as his mental health worsened // Credit: Louis Wain
By 1924, his mental health had deteriorated to a point where his family could no longer put up with him. They, then, admitted him into a mental facility where many believe he received treatment for schizophrenia. As his mental health deteriorated, his drawing style began to morph from its most well-known iterations into more abstract styles. Since then, many have used Wain’s evolution of style as an example of how mental illness reflects itself in art.
Ernest Hemingway is widely considered one of America’s greatest literary voices, having found early success in his 20’s as part of the Lost Generation, a group of writers that included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce. It was with them, and under the mentorship of Gertrude Stein, that he penned The Sun Also Rises, arguably his best work.
Ernest Hemingway, 1923 // Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Don’t you ever get the feeling that all your life is going by and you’re not taking advantage of it? Do you realize you’ve lived nearly half the time you have to live already?
– Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
He very quickly became the All-American, rugged male fantasy. But Hemingway could never live up to the idealised version of him that his fame had created and in the end, it was part of what killed him. It was during his time in Paris that he began having seemingly manic episodes, whereby he would become incredibly irritable and argumentative.
Hemingway at his home in Cuba, 1953 // Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Despite literary success and rugged appeal, he was a deeply troubled man. His family had a history of mental illness that he struggled with escaping his whole life. At the time, he was treated with electroshock therapy, something used mainly in the treatment of depression. It provided temporary help for his issues but mental health practitioners of the time failed to detect his bipolarity and narcissistic tendencies, which the therapy only served to exacerbate in the long run.
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
– Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
He wrote with an honesty and intelligence that spoke to an entire post-war generation. But as Hemingway himself once said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” And none of the worldwide acclaim and idealisation could save him from his mental illness. He ended up committing suicide in 1961 by shooting himself in the head.
Some of the greatest creative works from the past century have come out of great mental suffering. Writers and artists alike have continued to create despite depression, bipolarity, and schizophrenia. The link between the two is undeniable. I wonder, then, if one can truly function at its best without the other.
But maybe creative professions are just the few in life that don’t actively discourage erratic and unstable behaviour. The inconsistent behaviour and mood swings reflective of mental illness does not work well in conventional office environments. But instead, art encourages you to remove limitations and challenge societal norms. And such unreservedness can only go so far before it takes over and starts controlling you.
But this link should not discourage creative works, no. Instead, it should encourage further awareness and self-reflection. Art is important because it forces us to question our society and environment and questioning them is the only way for them to evolve. But we can’t simply stop at the question. We must find the answer too.
Do you know the difference between a mood disorder and a personality disorder? Get informed here.