West may be the most recent public example of how this myth affects the lives of artists living with mental illness, but it has a long history that includes the struggles of people such as Vincent van Gogh and David Foster Wallace. Nevertheless, the notion isn’t logical, according to Philip Muskin, a Columbia University psychiatry professor and the secretary of the American Psychiatric Association. “Creative people are not creative when they’re depressed, or so manic that no one can tolerate being with them and they start to merge into psychosis, or when they’re filled with numbing anxiety,” he says.
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Esmé Weijun Wang, a novelist who has written about living with schizoaffective disorder, has experienced that reality firsthand. “It may be true that mental illness has given me insights with which to work, creatively speaking, but it’s also made me too sick to use that creativity,” she says. “The voice in my head that says ‘Die, die, die’ is not a voice that encourages putting together a short story.”
Among people who deal with mental-health issues, it’s mostly people who experience mania—a sustained state of intense energy, racing thoughts, and elevated irritability—who complain that their medication makes them feel creatively blunted, says Muskin. That puts people with bipolar disorder, such as West, at particular risk for quitting medication. “I can understand wanting an internally directed high by the chemicals in your brain—that’s euphoria,” Muskin says. “You spend hours at the computer, and you feel like you’re writing something brilliant.”
What’s often not clear to people in the throes of mania is that although they might be superhumanly productive, that doesn’t mean what they’re producing is good. The way mania affects perception puts people who experience it in a particularly difficult position, explains Muskin: Despite its often negative consequences, to some people it can feel like a superpower, which might lead them to internalize the idea that their illness is the source of their talent.
Based on his work with patients, Muskin likens the experience of making art while manic to how brilliant people often think they sound while stoned: “You smoke with some friends and you record your brilliant discussion of Kafka or whatever. The next day, you listen to it and say, ‘Wow, we’re idiots.’” Not only does treatment not erase your creative abilities, Muskin says, but the correct combination of medication and therapy can make you more attuned to how your work’s quality will be perceived by people who aren’t in your mania with you.
Simon Kyaga, a researcher at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, Sweden, echoed Muskin’s view of medication’s potential upsides for artists. “By reducing the risk for things like depression, medications may in fact increase the likelihood of being creative,” he says. He points to a 1979 study that found that lithium was a creative boon to people with West’s diagnosis. Any treatment that makes day-to-day life more livable and survivable for artists is good for their art, he reasons.