Relation Between Mental Health And Creativity

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Piali Dasgupta,Senior Vice President, Marketing, Columbia Pacific Communities

Authored by Piali Dasgupta,Senior Vice President, Marketing, Columbia Pacific Communities

Scientists have been studying the relationship between creativity and mental illnesses for a while now. Some studies have shown that highly creative people and those with higher than usual IQ are more prone to mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder. History chronicles many such geniuses – starting with the famous painter Vincent Van Gogh to authors Sylvia Plath, writer Ernest Hemingway, 16th American President Abraham Lincoln, musician Beethoven, scientist Isaac Newton, and screen icon Marilyn Monroe – all of whom suffered from one or more forms of mental illness.

A high IQ and creativity have often been connected with mental illnesses and there is a school of thought that believes that the illness is a way of compensating for the brilliance and the creativity. Some of the most successful businessmen, artists, creative professionals in the world, are known to also be obsessive in nature. They chase uber-perfection, an absolute sense of order, and are almost neurotic about continuously pushing the envelope, raising the bar and achieving excellence.

Think of Steve Jobs, considered one of the most visionary thinkers and innovators of this century. But few know that Jobs was diagnosed with OCPD (Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder), BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) and Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

His obsession with excellence, order, seamlessness in design, to a lot of people, his phobia of buttons which led to the one-button design of the iphone and his penchant for turtlenecks, did point to a disorder of some sort. The question however is that is brilliance and the resultant fame and wealth too high a cost to pay for life-altering and almost life-threatening mental health disorders such as Depression, Bipolar Disorder or Anxiety.

To me, that answer is no.

No amount of brilliance, creativity, fame, wealth can compensate for the sheer pain, torture, and hopelessness that someone with a serious mental health disorder goes through on a daily basis, often in silence, because of the apathy and the stigma attached to it.

Just as history shows us many examples of mentally ill creative geniuses whose contributions changed the world that we live in today, it’s also true that extended periods of depressive episodes can prevent sufferers from reaching their optimum human potential and creativity because depression, by nature, makes achieving anything very difficult.

People living with Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, and a few other mental illnesses, may come across as obsessive sticklers of perfection, isolated, are usually very hard on themselves and needlessly self-critical, and overachieve constantly, for the fear of being called an underachiever. The fear of failure is staggering amongst them. And that’s not necessarily healthy. 

A healthy mind is considered a precursor to a healthy and fulfilling life, which often serves as the fuel for creativity. It’s true that some of the most celebrated works in literature in art have stemmed from the greatest human suffering and pain. But the reverse is not true, ie, people that don’t suffer from one or more forms of mental illness are not uncreative.

As for mental health at workplace, as someone that has lived with depression and anxiety for over 25 years, I must say that India Inc. is not designed to support people with mental illnesses and help them thrive. Lack of empathy, basic understanding of mental illnesses and a “one size fits all” approach contribute to this.

Sure, there are flash-in-the-pan initiatives such as meditation/yoga/counselling at work. Some companies even started 4-day work weeks during the pandemic, and then discontinued it thereafter. But these are token initiatives that overlook the larger problem – how do you make workplaces truly inclusive by driving policy changes that empower those silently battling mental health disorders? How do you help them thrive, as opposed to make them struggle and eventually perish?

Leaders must understand that just as all five fingers in our hand are not the same, everyone’s minds are not wired the same way. Someone with depression or PTSD has a completely different world view than someone that doesn’t. It’s important to not label those and discriminate against those that don’t “fit in.” Square pegs can’t continue to be expected to fit into round holes.

Unless organisations invest in extensive awareness building around mental health issues, this basic empathy towards those that are suffering will never materialise. It’s about time, organisations thought of policy changes, revisiting performance metrics and indexes to support those that are fighting a battle with their own minds.   Till that happens, we will continue to see World Mental Health Day posts flooding our timelines once a year, and at best some yoga and meditation sessions at work. But nothing that truly aims to address a problem that’s long been overlooked by workplaces.     

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