Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Mental Health & Artists (1)

Generally speaking mental health is a bit of a taboo subject, although in this day and age, it absolutely shouldn’t be. Given some of the outright disgusting conversations that I overhear on an average night out, I’m amazed that anything can be considered taboo in 2014, because many of us have the luxury of living in a no-boundaries society these days. Unless, of course, you’re talking about problems with the human psyche, in which case you might as well lock yourselves away now and resign yourselves to a life of only discussing this topic with trained professionals who are paid to listen. Not for public consumption. Nuh-uh. No, thank you.

For the sake of this blog post actually going somewhere, let’s just put a pin in the notion that we can’t talk about mental health and pretend for a second that we can. Or, let’s be even more risqué and talk about mental health in relation to art, because that’s really what I’m interested in right now.

After reading an article recently, I discovered that rates of mental health issues, namely things such as depression, are typically higher in the artistic community. 

Why?

Answers on a post card, please.

I don’t know why. I don’t know if the bits of our brains that make us creative also somehow make us nutty on the odd occasion; or whether what we’re doing with our lives, namely creating art, somehow drives us crazy. I don’t know if it’s part and parcel of doing what we do that eventually chips away at the logical bits of our brains until we think in colours and speak in smells, and somehow get away with calling it art. 

I don’t even know if art does make us crazy (completely flippant use of that word by the way, I’m not at all insinuating that anyone suffering from depression, or any type of mental health problem, should be branded as a nut-bag and thrown in a padded cell - I’m merely being colloquial), or if maybe crazy people just happen to make art. 

But then what about people suffering from mental health problems who don’t make art? Or people who are artistic, but don’t make a career out of it, and therefore don’t suffer from mental health problems? There are so many variations to consider in this field of conversation, is it even possible to try and isolate a reason why artists might suffer more from mental health issues than any other type of person? Is it even fair to try and do that? Are we effectively insinuating that there is some kind of prerequisite here? Are we therefore banishing people with fully-functioning mental health to an un-artistic life? Is there even such a thing is someone with a fully-functioning state of mental health, or is that an urban myth?

I don’t know. But I’d like to.

I suppose ultimately my concern here is that stigma is being attached to mental health issues, which is then being attached to the artistic community - which is particularly frustrating given that neither of the things above warrant any kind of negative stigma. At all. Not even a little bit.

For anyone who is aware of stereotypes, you’ll be more than aware that there are some fairly unsavoury ones for people who are considered to be artistic. One of which - perhaps one of the most popular and well-known ones - is that they are somehow unhinged. Where did this come from? Okay, Van Gogh probably didn’t do us all any favours with that one, but are the archetypal artists who came and went years before us really the point of reference for anyone who paints, writes, or makes music in this present era? It hardly seems fair, and I’m not convinced it’s accurate. Okay, maybe that should read entirely accurate. Continuing with where this stigma comes from, I also can’t help but wonder whether it’s from the people who are close to these artists. Everyone loves it when they’re being painted, or written about, but when you break someone’s heart and instead of developing your character they start planning how to kill you off, suddenly they’re unhinged, unhappy, unstable. Has that contributed to the stigma; that instead of moving on from troubling things in our lives, we must first document them and share them, often causing deep upset for the person who inspired the work itself? Maybe that’s worth considering more for part two of this feature.

It has often been suggested that writing can be a great help to those suffering with mental health problems, offering a safe and constructive outlet, despite the writing itself being a troubling read should you stumble across it three years later. Nevertheless, artistic acts have been said to be very therapeutic for those suffering through a time of mental turbulence. So where is the line between art helping, and art being the cause, if indeed art is the cause at all for any type of mental health problem? Perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps it’s merely stigma, rolled into stereotype, rolled (sort of) into reality, and now people are forced to accept that writers and their fellow artistic comrades are just a little quirky - an infinitely more flattering and altogether acceptable word to use, as opposed to ‘crazy’. 

Furthermore, the continued investigations and discussions relating to an implied compartmentalisation of the writer’s psyche may have perhaps contributed to this further. This idea that we are somehow more than one person: the writer and the human. A fascinating idea that is developed wonderfully in Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating With The Dead, for anyone who is interested in reading more about the idea. But I think I’ll probably leave that one for part three…

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