Plato famously claimed that a poet’s inspiration arose during moments of ‘divine madness’*, and that, such ‘divine madness’ is, ultimately, the very thing that inspires all creativity, in every form.
*(‘divine’ because it was said to come from the ‘Gods.’)
Plato isn’t alone in his belief in such ‘divine madness’, either. In fact, research has revealed disproportionately high rates of mood disorders- particularly manic depression, or bipolar disorder, and chronic depression- among creative people. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, concluded in her study ‘Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament’ that among distinguished artists the rate of such depressive illnesses is 10 to 30 times as prevalent as the population at large.
Furthermore, a 10-year study conducted by Dr. Arnold M. Ludwig, a University of Kentucky professor of psychiatry, also concluded that psychiatric disturbances are far more common among artists than in other professions. Dr. Ludwig, who studied more than 1,000 people, said his research revealed that poets were by far the most tortured individuals. And, it’s not just poets who are most at risk. Writers in general are susceptible- at a higher risk of having anxiety and bipolar disorders, schizophrenia, unipolar depression, and substance abuse, and twice as likely as the general population to kill themselves.
The novelist Virginia Wolf reinforced the results of this study, when she came to regard her own mental illness as inspiration for her work…
‘As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does.’
In terms of why this is the case- why creatives are more likely to struggle with their mental health- Geneticists suggest that; because the way a manic depressive episode arouses brain activity- triggering extreme swings of emotion- the brain may become more adaptive to synthesising incongruous thoughts. And, that process- of reorganising disparate emotions into a new order- may be the very essence of creativity.
A counter-argument, however, is that, creativity is not a product of mental illness, but of misunderstanding.
Dr. Porter, the social historian, said: ‘In history a lot of people diagnosed as mad were misunderstood. Every artist who is trying to push past the frontiers sees himself as misunderstood and, in essence, therefore ‘mad.’
Whether we are mad, misunderstood, both, or neither, one thing is for certain:
creativity is the greatest gift of humanity,
an act of defiance in the face of grief and loss-
two of the only things which are guaranteed in life-
providing us with hope,
both for artist and audience in equal measure.
This is why I write.
Grief and loss and sadness,
joy and hope and happiness,
whatever I’m feeling,
this is why I write-
to go from feeling misunderstood,
Writing is my therapy.