Creating a better world for the mental health of the artist
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously pioneered the theory of flow — an idea that people enter psychological states of optimal happiness and productivity when they intensely concentrate on work that challenges them.
Artists often enter these intense periods of flow, but sometimes at the expense of creative burnout, where the spark that once moved their artistic action goes out.
“I make better work when I’m either excited to do it or when I’m kind of content with the idea at hand, and sometimes that doesn’t always work,” said Erin Szturm, a third-year fine arts student at the University of Ottawa, about her personal experience with creative burnout.
She mentioned that academic expectations can also be a source of stress in her program, and emphasized the level of work ethic that comes with creating art.
“It takes a lot of discipline and practice because art isn’t just a talent, you don’t just magically wake up an artist, it takes a lot of thought.”
For Mae Green, another fine arts student at the U of O, finding creativity in an academic context can be challenging in another way.
“When the thing that you do as a hobby and that you like becomes a thing that is just work, then you can’t really enjoy it on its own, separated from its work context. So, that can be very draining and hard to think of anything to inspire,” they explained.
However, the highs and lows that come with the flow of creative work can be more drastic, especially with artists who suffer from mental illnesses. When thinking of great artists, we often conjure up the cultural image of the “mad artist”: a person whose mental illness drives them to produce great work. Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch are classic examples of artists whose mental illness contributed to their notoriety, and perhaps consideration as being artistic geniuses.
Despite there being correlations between creativity and mental illness, the “mad artist” archetype may romanticize unhealthy work habits and stigmatize artists who suffer from mental health disorders.
Bakul Sharma, the Director of Strategy and Operations at Artists for Mental Health, a non-profit based in Vancouver aiming to end the stigma around mental health in the arts community, spoke with us about some of her research on the connections between mental illness and artistic temperament. But, as she developed her findings, it was clear to her that there was a pressing need to change how we understand this relationship.
Using Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, creative episodes, and hypomania, Sharma found distinctive connections between mental illness and creative flow.
Creativity comes in different levels of intensity, but Sharma found that it tends to come and go, following a sinusoidal function similar to the highs and lows that occur in mood disorders. For instance, bipolar disorder is characterized by episodes of mania and depression; the first consisting of episodes of hyperactivity, restlessness, and rapid thinking, and the second defined by a lack of motivation, self-destruction, and sadness. Although BP is an elevated version of what creative individuals may experience when engaging in artistic work, it shows how mood disorders could either contribute to or help bring about creative work.
Knowing this, Sharma emphasizes that mental illness is not necessary for creative work, but we can’t forget about artists whose mental illnesses do impact their work.
“I believ[e] in that idea, that vision, that one day the terms ‘tortured artist’ and ‘mad genius’ will disappear, it will be an archaic idea of artists of being mentally distraught,” she explained, advocating for a transformation in the way we define and support artists with mental health challenges.
Some solutions Sharma presents for artists struggling with creative burnout include building community and engaging in interdisciplinary work. In the presence of an artistic community, individuals can find support and a reignition of passion by talking and sharing with others in their creative endeavours. They can also find joy in working with new mediums as novelty can often bring about inspiration.
And Sharma’s solutions ring true because for young artists like Erin, having community is central to her well-being.
“Not only do I have friends in my program and we can bounce ideas off within critiques in an open way that help me move forward and I feel happy to move forward or get a sense of getting better at art,” Erin said as she explained how art has positively contributed to her well-being.
Great ideas can unexpectedly come about during periods of creative flow or emerge from the ubiquity of mental illness. However, to create a future where artists can sustain creativity and remain healthy, there needs to be a cultural shift in the way we understand how great artists work and stronger art communities everywhere.
Erin Szturm is a Canadian painter, drawer, multi-media maker, and interdisciplinary artist whose work can be accessed here and viewed through her Instagram @ermaybe.
Mae Green mostly does drawing, painting, and digital work. Their art can be viewed through their Instagram @artisticdragon_12.