Wednesday, August 30, 2006

TO READ: More remarkable people with depression or bipolar disorder
Lists of well-known figures who have dealt with depression or bipolar disorder include many, many accomplished writers, poets, visual artists, musicians and composers -- both historical and contemporary. From Sylvia Plath to Hans Christian Andersen, Michelangelo to Georgia O'Keefe, Sergey Rachmaninoff to Charlie Parker, they represent diverse times and styles. (For excellent lists, discussions, and statistics, see Kay Redfield Jamison's Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.)

Indeed, there is some degree of correlation between mood disorders and creativity of these sorts. In one major retrospective study Jamison cites, which covers the years 1960-1990, individuals in the arts showed two to three times the rate of psychosis, suicide attempts, mood disorders and substance abuse than people in other professions. Poets fared worst of all: an amazing 18% of poets studied had committed suicide.

People have noticed these correlations for centuries, and this has led to a certain degree of romanticizing of "mad artists." That is, these traits go together, and society is the better for it. Even some of these creatives themselves feel their illness fuels their unique products. Susanna Kaysen, writing in Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression, puts it bluntly: "I think melancholy is useful. In its aspect of pensive reflection or contemplation, it's the source of many books (even those complaining about it) and paintings...."

Others feel that, while emotion can be adaptive, depression should not -- as some have argued -- go untreated in our society merely to enable art. Psychiatrist Peter D. Kramer, in his book Against Depression, imagines a time when depression could be medically eradicated. "If we could treat depression reliably, we would have different artists, different subjects, different stories, different needs, different tastes," he writes. But he goes on to consider a whole new scenario without depression's existence. "I mean mainly to ask why we would not let go of melancholy, and trust ourselves with responsive minds and resilient brains."

All the books mentioned here offer elaborate, detailed considerations of these issues and more. Still, even with these few paragraphs of information, I wonder what you think. Do you feel our society romanticizes mood disorders? Do you feel your mental health situation aids your own creativity? I believe (as of this writing!) that, if I could, I would forfeit my depression for a potential loss of some degree of creative ability. What about you?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love the way that you are interlacing comments from other sources into your blog. You are clearly very well read on the topic and bring interesting perspectives to the table. Thanks.