Many people experience mental health and emotional health challenges, perhaps especially those who are actively creative.
The idea of the “mad” artist has a long history, and is supported to some extent by research, and the experiences of mental illness shared by many creative people. What do psychologists and artists say about this complex topic?
The caption for a PBS a video (“Connecting strength and vulnerability of the creative brain” – source of the image above) asks:
“Why have so many creative minds suffered from mental illness?
“Nancy Andreasen, Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa, has devoted decades of study to the physical differences in the brains of writers and other highly accomplished individuals.”
Cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., addresses this topic in a post:
“I do believe that If the mental processes associated with psychosis were evaporated entirely from this world, art would suck. But so would a lot of other things that require imagination.”
He notes that psychosis is on a continuum:
“Too much psychosis and one is at high risk of going mad. But everyone engages in psychosis-related thought any time they use their imagination.
See the video, other quotes by Dr. Kaufman and much more in my article
Madness and creativity: do we need to be crazy?
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Actor William H. Macy once commented,
“Nobody became an actor because he had a good childhood.”
Psychologist Cheryl Arutt agrees that is both a funny and a provocative remark.
She thinks that actors and other artists who are willing, in their creative work, to delve into the really “messy” feelings of being human (shame, devastations, disappointments, betrayals, traumas and more), probably have a relationship with those feelings.
She is a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, specializing in trauma recovery, fertility and creative artist issues, and a forensic and media consultant, as well as a frequent psychological expert on media including CNN, HLN, truTV.
Topics in our interview [hear excerpt further down this page] include:
“Bad boy” images and acting-out
Actors and actresses with “bad boy” or “troubled” images, or problems with issues of anger and acting out, have included Christian Bale, Shia Labeouf and many other talented performers.
Dr. Arutt comments about this kind of behavior, and the underlying emotional challenges, that so many people have – not just actors and performers.
Counseling or therapy can be a useful tool to help us better understand ourselves, gain mental wellness and make positive use of our demons and inner turmoil.
Psychologist Cheryl Arutt notes:
“Creating art has always been a way to channel emotional intensity…If you are an artist, you are your instrument. The greater access you maintain to yourself, the richer and broader your array of creative tools.”
Artists and psychotherapy
“Acting is telling a story, and you’re part of telling that story.
“In some ways therapy helps more than acting class. You realize why you operate in certain ways.”
Heather Graham expressed one of the most valuable and positive reasons for therapy or counseling: knowing your emotions and inner dynamics better, so you can portray being a human more authentically.
From our interview (years ago) – see more in my Inner Actor article Actors and therapy.
Graham’s screenwriting and directorial debut movie is Half Magic.
Photo is from article about the movie: It Took Heather Graham Years To Make A Movie About Women Ditching Toxic Men. The Reason? Men. By Kelsea Stahler, Bustle, Feb. 2018.
“I love being in therapy. It’s just constantly fulfilling for me.”
~ Jennifer Jason Leigh
In an interview, she adds:
“I’m a typical middle child. I’m the mediator. The one that makes everything OK, puts their own needs aside to make sure everybody’s happy.
“It’s hard to change your nature, even with years and years of therapy.”
(Interviewer: “Have you had years and years of therapy?”)
“Oh sure, I’ve been in therapy for years.”
“She looks at me a bit bemused, and very slightly shakes her head. I can’t make out whether that’s at the nosiness of my question, or the idea that I don’t know what the point of therapy is.”
From What you see and what you get by Zoe Williams, the Guardian 11 Mar 2005.
Photo from Jennifer Jason Leigh: ‘I’ve been at this precipice so many times’, the Guardian 2 Jan 2016.
Claire Danes once made a succinct comment about the value of therapy:
“My therapist gives me permission to accept that I’m human.”
From article: Learning to Befriend Our Inner Demons.
An article notes she “has headlined Showtimes’ Homeland as CIA agent Carrie Mathison.
“Her character is bipolar; a trait not often written in to leading characters and its been noted how delicately Claire has handled it.
“Dealing with challenges through therapy is something Claire has been preparing for almost her whole life: She has been in therapy since she was 6 years old:
“I’ve always been deeply interested in psychology and how we work… I do it because it’s a helpful tool and a luxury to self-reflect and get some insight. But there have been points in my life when it was really essential.”
Claire Danes has been in therapy since she was 6 years old: ‘it’s a helpful tool’, Celebitchy December 04, 2015.
Photo from Claire Danes for The Edit Magazine by Steven Pan.
“Life without pain isn’t real at all.”
Shia LaBeouf started acting at age 12 to support his mother when his heroin-addicted father abandoned the family. LaBeouf has said he was subjected to verbal and mental abuse by his father, who once pointed a gun at him during a Vietnam War flashback.
From my post Traumatic Childhood, Creative Adult .
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The Shadow Self
Dr. Arutt talks about the concept of the Shadow Self that psychologist Carl Jung addressed in his therapy and writings. She notes that our emotional health and balance, perhaps especially for artists, may depend on having some understanding and acceptance of the darker or uncomfortable sides of ourselves – and this also gives us more power to make aware choices rather than just react to life unconsciously.
Also see my post Dancing With Our Shadow to Develop Creativity.
Creativity and mental health
This is a favorite topic of both of us, and Dr. Arutt talks about the fears many artists have about treating their depression, anxiety or other challenges, and then numbing or losing their creativity.
Dr. Arutt points out that certain forms of psychotherapy and techniques such as EMDR can be very effective in helping creative people get past the emotional pains which interfere with their creativity.
She notes that sometimes medication can be helpful for disruptive symptoms when prescribed by a medication specialist, a knowledgeable psychiatrist or psychopharmacologist.
“Unfortunately, many people are prescribed psychiatric medications by their general physician who may not be informed or trained well enough about this class of medications, resulting in people getting drug treatment that may not be helpful.”
Here is brief excerpt from our much longer audio interview:
Here is a video based on the audio excerpt:
Also hear longer interview:
Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Creative Artist Issues.
Topics include high sensitivity, regulating disruptive feelings, destructiveness vs creativity, pain and creativity, being unconventional vs rebellion against the self, the fight-or-flight response, and other issues which can impact creative artists and, of course, other people as well.
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Norman Bates and his mom
“She just goes a little mad sometimes. We all go a little mad sometimes. Haven’t you?” Norman Bates in Psycho (1960).
As a prequel to the film, the TV series “Bates Motel” portrays how Norman Bates’ psyche “unravels through his teenage years” under the influence of his mother, Norma.
Kerry Ehrin is a creator, writer, producer and showrunner of “Bates Motel” (on A&E) and writes about the personal influences that helped her create such emotionally rich characters.
“…writing a couple of crazy people started getting terribly personal. The first thing I had to do when trying to find Norma Bates on paper was to forget that I’d had therapy.
“Sure, therapy is great, and it saved my life and blah, blah, blah. But getting ‘healthy’ definitely knocks a lot of the fun out of your life.
“And I missed it; the crazy, emotional, larger-than-life existence that was too big and too exhausting to fit into the real world in any productive way.
“Enter Norma Bates: the perfect vehicle for every crazy thing I’ve ever felt or done.
“She could be mercurial, fierce, insecure, recklessly sexual, passionately maternal, wildly brave and incredibly fragile all at once.”
“Although my childhood was nowhere near as bleak as Norma’s, I did grow up in an environment that, along with many wonderful elements, included chaos, rage, alcohol abuse, broken hearts and the hamster wheel of hoping that it would be different because you loved the hell out of everyone in the house and wanted to fix it for them.
“I attached that to Norma and Norman.
“That feeling of being so bonded to your ally in a dysfunctional family that you might die without them. Those bonds have tremendous power and are often co-dependent.
“Co-dependence gets a lot of bad press, but it also has incredible power and larger-than-life beauty and meaning when you are on the inside of it, so much so that ‘normal,’ healthy relationships often pale in comparison.”
From her article Delving deep for Norma’s voice on ‘Bates Motel’.
Ehrin’s comment about missing the “craziness” reminds me of another artist:
Actor, novelist, script consultant, screenwriter, and performance artist Carrie Fisher experienced depression and other mental health challenges in her life, and commented:
“The manic end of is a lot of fun. I try to encourage people to envy my mania. A lot of it is just fantastic.”
Dr. Arutt refers to her TEDx video – “That Good Feeling of Control” – and notes the title comes from TV host Fred Rogers who wanted to teach kids how to deal with the “mad” they felt inside, and be able to decide what to do with these kinds of strong feelings, and that what he was talking about was self-regulation and affect regulation that can help us as adults, too.
She thinks most forms of mental illness “can be traced to some form of dysregulation, either over-control or under-control.”
[You can view the video in the post Channeling Intensity Through Creative Expression.]
Artists need to safely access challenging emotional “places”
She notes our “flaws and quirks are some of the most interesting things about us” and that when actors can be free to play and risk, and trust they can safely return from extreme states of mind, they can immerse themselves in their characters, and sublimate or channel difficult or challenging emotions, and this can be one of the great gifts of working in a creative field.
But actor Mariska Hargitay has talked about finding it hard to “shake off” some of the horrific stories she helps portray on her long-running TV show “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Dr. Arutt says something similar happens with therapists who work with victims of trauma.
Recovery from trauma
One of her areas of expertise is trauma therapy, for about twenty years. Dr. Arutt says people who have experienced trauma have had “more coming into their system than they are designed to cope with” using our hardwired fight/flight/freeze responses.
She finds that when people experience trauma and don’t understand well enough what is going on, they often feel “crazy” and don’t realize millions of others have had similar experiences.
Trauma can also lead to self-blame and very negative beliefs about the self, which can endure a lifetime if they aren’t addressed.
Dr. Arutt notes that “each person’s hell is their own” and that what is traumatic for someone does not have to be just a “major” event like rape or being in a war, surviving a car crash or hurricane.
“We are not really in a position to judge what is going to traumatize another person.”
She is ‘very excited’ by the technology of fMRI, functional MRI, a form of brain scanning that shows how the brain is functioning, in addition to its anatomy.
She notes this can show the changes in the brain from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), and its healing process, using therapy such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which she describes.
After I comment in our interview that Highly Sensitive People may react more to traumatic experiences, Dr. Arutt agrees, and adds that high sensitivity is correlated with creativity and giftedness: “These things can overlap substantially.”
She says that whether or not they have the trait of high sensitivity (sensory processing sensitivity), creative people experience things in “such a deep, profound way” and that is why so many artists call other people ‘civilians’ who don’t really understand.
Also see video: Psychologist Cheryl Arutt on Creative People and Sensitivity and Suffering in post:
Pain and suffering and developing creativity.
Halle Berry said she recalls being terrified that her violent father, who physically abused her mother, would turn on her, adding,
“I think I’ve spent my adult life dealing with the sense of low self-esteem that sort of implanted in me. Somehow I felt not worthy.”
Quoted in post: Creative People and Trauma.
She has talked about some of the issues that people help work through in counseling:
“I’ve done therapy on an as-needed basis since I was probably 10 years old.
“My father was an alcoholic and a very abusive one, and my mother knew the value of providing me with the outlet of an unbiased person to talk to, so I’ve done that all my life when times get stressful. It really helps me deal with stuff.”
She also said,
“I try really hard not to take my problems out on others and, in order to do that, I tend to mask the bad stuff or deal with it internally – you know, keep my chin up, put on a brave face and just keep going.
“If I do have a problem, I handle it so well that most other people don’t even know about it.”
‘I’ve been in therapy for 30 years’: Halle Berry on her troubled childhood with abusive alcoholic father, Daily Mail 26 March 2013.
Creative work as therapy
Berry commented about acting in her intense movie “Gothika” (2003):
“Although physically I would feel exhausted and tired, my back would hurt, my arms would hurt and my feet would be raw from running through all the stuff, there was still something about it that felt good, like I had a cathartic experience.
“I got a lot of stuff out of me that was pent up in little corners of myself, so I felt good at the same time.”
Quoted in my article The Alchemy of Art: Creative Expression and Healing.
Photo from her Facebook page.
Being courageous to be authentic and follow our creative talents
Dr. Arutt recites part of a wonderful poem she often shares with her creative professional clients who may be struggling with “the issue of talent and self worth,” and questions such as ‘Am I a real artist’ – as well as with family responses that may or may not be supportive.
The poem is “For the young who want to” by Marge Piercy. It starts off:
Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.
Work is what you have done
after the play is produced
and the audience claps.
Before that friends keep asking
when you are planning to go
out and get a job.
Self-care and staying healthy
Dr. Arutt concludes that creative people need to show self-compassion and take care of themselves – that you “can’t protect the art without protecting the artist.”
She also emphasizes that whether or not you use difficulties in life for art, “Your pain is a part of you, but you are not your symptoms; you are so much more.”http://thecreativemind.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Be-Creative-video-Mental-Health-Channel.jpg
She urges creative people to “allow permission to be thriving and healthy. To be able to go out and dare to write or embody all that the artist wants to do, really starts with learning how to settle down” and quiet the mind and body.
“The sensitivity and the ability to go there, to create – wherever ‘there’ may be – is a gift and a talent. But getting stuck there is no fun for anyone, and is not required in order to do good work. If you can take good care of yourself, and then visit there, everybody wins.”
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Using creativity to enhance mental health
The Mental Health Channel is an online network presenting inspiring true stories with a mission to “Create engaging, enlightening, informative programming, commercial free, to help all viewers improve their mental health.”
Here are two of their videos:
Express Yourself – “Willie Minor started acting to help overcome PTSD – and found his calling. 250 plays later, he’s still acting, directing and teaching others the healing power of self expression.”
Be Creative – “Creativity is the original antidepressant. Dr. Carrie Barron shows us how creative expression takes all forms, as she reunites with a friend for her first musical performance in decades.”
The Creativity Cure: How To Build Happiness With Your Own Two Hands
“Husband-and-wife physicians Carrie and Alton Barron draw upon the latest psychological research, a combined forty years of medical practice, and personal experience to reveal that creative action is integral to easing depression and anxiety and to fueling wellbeing.” [Summary from carriebarronmd.com]
In an interview, Carrie Barron addresses the question of how creative work can involve anxiety and other strong feelings, but also provide relief. She said:
“There are many stages to the creative process; some involve a letting go, some a reining in. There is divergent and convergent thinking. If we feel blocked, apprehensive about how our product will be received, frustrated by what feels like an unsolvable problem, we can feel anxious and depressed.
“The trick is to teach yourself to have tolerance for these uncomfortable phases, move through them with trust and patience until you get to the idea that grabs, holds and guides you through. When you reach that place, agitations and stresses decrease and a more balanced, positive view can ensue. Absorption in a project that interests you can be an antidote for oppressive states of mind.”
From article: Tea for Creatives: Carrie Barron has a Creativity Cure by Possibiliteas.
More perspectives by Carrie Barron, M.D. – from description of her online class “How to Uncover the Unconscious and Release Creativity”:
“The unconscious is a treasure trove of novel ideas, innovations, odd combinations and original thought. It is where instincts, passions, wishes and dreams reside.
“Accessing the unconscious through honoring dreams, intuition and wispy random thoughts can help us be more creative, authentic and content.”
From post: Collaborating With Our Shadow Side.
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See more than 25 posts on this site The Creative Mind in the category Mental Health.
Artists and Addiction – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edie Falco, Russell Brand, Tatum O’Neal, Johnny Depp, Ed Harris, Michael J. Fox, Robert Downey Jr., Faye Dunaway, Carrie Fisher, Colin Farrell, Lynda Carter and other artists, plus comments by psychologists. Also links to resources: books, articles, programs.
Articles by Cheryl Arutt:
More articles and resources for emotional health
The Psychology of Creativity: Redeeming Our Inner Demons – An interview with Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D. by Douglas Eby
A clinical and forensic psychologist, Stephen Diamond works with many talented individuals committed to becoming more creative.
And, as he explains in his book, “Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic,” our impulse to be creative “can be understood to some degree as the subjective struggle to give form, structure and constructive expression to inner and outer chaos and conflict.”
Pretty much all of us experience some kind of trauma in life. How does creative expression help people deal with it? How do people make use of traumatic experiences in their creative work?
Trauma takes many forms, and has different sources and levels of impact for each of us. Many artists have experienced rape, physical abuse and other experiences, including Patrick Stewart, SARK, Halle Berry, Amber Tamblyn, Lady Gaga, will.i.am, Jennifer Lawrence, Jonathan Safran Foer, J. K. Rowling and many others.
Emotional Health Resources
Programs, books, articles and sites to improve your emotional wellbeing.