Creativity and Mental Health: ‘Art literally saved my life’

Rates of mental illness may be higher in creative types, but are we wrapping a ball and chain around the ankles of mentally ill people, willing them to drown in a vat of oil paints and acrylics, or is there a real link?

It’s no secret that highly creative people, writers, artists and comedians alike, tend to battle with self-destructive qualities – and there’s poetry in that alone.

However, what exactly is the link and can creativity tackle mental illness?

Dr Nancy Andreasen, prominent neuroscientist and psychiatrist with a PhD in English Literature, is one of the world’s leading experts on creativity.

Based at the University of Iwoa, her background in both the arts and the sciences has led to decades of research on the nature of creativity and its links with mental illness: “My work and that of many others has found that highly creative people have an increased rate of mental illness – particularly mood disorders.”

However, revering the symbol of the ‘tortured artist’ may create more depth of illness than it does profound works of art.

Dr Andreasen says that society’s misconception of creativity, that mental illness automatically promotes creativity, is dangerous and factually incorrect: “That implies a directional causative relationship – that mental illness leads to creativity.

“Mental illness affects 30-40% of the population. Less than 1% of the population are highly creative.

“I don’t see them as causing one another. Instead, I think there is a more basic property that is potentially the cause of both.

“It is the ability to see and understand the world in an original way. This makes creatives ‘different.’

“It sometimes predisposes mental illnesses such as depression, but not always.”

In the mid-1970s and 1980s, Dr Nancy Andreasen conducted the first ‘solidly empirical’ study of creativity and mental illness.

A sample group of 30 writers and 30 control subjects were evaluated in structured interviews where clinical diagnoses were made.

Results showed that 80% of the writers compared with 30% of a control group had some type of mood disorder, notably bipolar I and bipolar II.

Dr Andreasen adds, “While many writers suffer from a mood disorder, not all do.

“Some have alcoholism, while a few suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Prescribing creativity for severe mental illness is not the ultimate cure. However, as art is an abstract way of understanding the world, it makes sense that many of those suffering with mental illness – who want nothing more than to understand and to be understood – often need a creative outlet to achieve that level of communication.

For this very reason, treatments such as art therapy, music therapy and writing therapy are of recent interest to clinicians.

As head of British Academy funded project, Creative Writing Interventions for Young People in Recovery from Mental Illness, Dr Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Lecturer of Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, is exploring how creative writing can assist young people recovering from mental illness.

By holding workshops with different mental health initiatives across the UK and conducting pilot studies, Dr Jess-Cooke hopes to better the use of creative writing in mental health therapy.

Already, she has noted some common problems with the clinical use of writing: “It has to be in a controlled environment.

“Getting people to sit down and write directly about something traumatic can be damaging.

“Creative writing is the better angle, rather than engaging in expressive writing and life writing, because it acts as a bit of a barrier.”

Although writers often use fiction to explain reality, they rarely write directly about a painful life experience. Therefore, Dr Jess-Cooke believes that writing is a strategy that should be employed creatively in mental health settings: “Poetry has been spoken of as an act of bearing witness.

“Creative writing can offer an opportunity to reconstruct and reprocess, and consider things from a different angle.

“It can be more empowering because it can have a different outcome. You can fictionalise.

“You can, if you do decide to write from your own past experiences, put it in a Sci-fi setting or have superheroes – you can do whatever you want.

“But there’s an obligation to the truth when you write directly about the past, it can be painful.”

Mental health is a vastly underfunded area of the public health sector, but at least in the public arena the mental health dialogue is experiencing a boom.

Many of today’s ‘tortured artists’ are taking it upon themselves to “do whatever they want” with this changing narrative.

Not only are they using creativity as a tool to tackle mental illness, they are creatively fighting the stigma as well – humanising the script with signature monologues.

“Jury’s out, but I don’t think anorexia is a great way to live,” laughs Dave Chawner, cutting off the sad piano arrangement and placing his sense of humour firmly before any eating disorder in his credentials.


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Award-winning comedian, Dave Chawner, feeds the laughter and starves the stigma with jokes about his anorexia for awareness with BEAT UK. Photograph: Dave Chawner


The award-winning, London-based comedian is using his anorexia as the punchline with which to beat the stigma until it’s dazed and confused, stupid and giggling all the way home.

Dave Chawner, now 28, began suffering with anorexia at the age of 17.

“Suffering. I really hate that word,” he playfully chimes. “It’s so pathetic. It sounds so weak and needy, and I just think that’s really shit.”

Like creative writing, comedy can also act as a buffer for the harsh realities of life.

“Taking something that you’ve been running from or you’re ashamed of or really upset about and changing it into something funny is a huge catharsis,” he says.

Backed by BEAT UK, Dave Chawner previously toured a comedically-driven eating disorders awareness campaign. ‘Normally Abnormal’ aimed to shed a surreal light on a very real issue by using comedy to both blur and clarify the lines: “Nobody says I don’t like to laugh. Nobody says I don’t like to have fun.

“I looked at that and thought, I could actually use comedy as a way to talk about this stuff, take it off the shelf, break it down, and make it engaging.

“Comedy has a wonderful way of reaching people because people are laughing and to be laughing they have to be listening and if they’re listening they can learn.

“I want to use that to help people that might be struggling, but also to get to a wider audience of people who are lucky enough to have no experience whatsoever.

“And, I personally don’t think that’s mental.”

The comedian cracks up a bit, “But, there are bits where I’m like, ‘Is that funny or is it just f*cking tragic?’”

Not entirely shy of tragedy, Dave wants to focus his next show on the “balls-to-the-walls” details of recovery: “Stories of mental illness finish with people going, ‘then I came out of therapy and it’s amazing’ and that’s not true.

“We pin these piffy narratives onto it.

“To say, I don’t have it all together and I’ve been searching for years for this, I’m hoping is the take home idea.”

It’s a good point. Not only is mental health often sensationalised it can also be detrimentally censored.

Although, 1 in 10 children aged between 5 and 16-years-old has a diagnosable mental illness, we often exclude young people from the mental health discussion – sheltering them from life-saving information.

Re-routing this stunted narrative is Livingston-based author and illustrator, Deborah Malcolm. Deborah, 29, decided four years ago to go against the grain and design a children’s picture book all about depression.


Illustrator, Deborah Malcolm, designed an unlikely children’s book about depression in an attempt to encourage childe mental health and well-being. Photograph: Deborah Malcolm


Based on her own 10-year struggle, ‘Meh’ was published in 2015: “It is an unconventional story type and it’s not a popular story, but I felt it was important enough to try and challenge it.”

Mental illness in children is something most people don’t want to think about let alone talk about. ‘Meh’ aims to open such a discussion between child and adult by offering evocative imagery accompanied by reflective questions: “My hope is that the sooner you teach the fundamentals of mindfulness and the little things we use during treatment of mental illness, it will just become the norm and a part of life really.”

After various reiterations, Deborah decided to make the book wordless. She views this as a symbolic articulation of depression that children can uniquely interpret: “It’s so hard to put into words, because it’s just so blugh. That’s why the book’s called ‘Meh.’

“You know, ‘How do you feel?’

“It’s phonic, it’s just a noise, and it’s just ugh.

“I kind of thought, does it need words?”

Often there are no words to describe mental illness, and Dave puts it best when he says, “I think it’s very hard to understand this sort of thing when you’re in the eye of the storm. It’s kind of like standing an inch away from a painting and trying to describe the whole picture, it’s just not going to happen.”

And, painting that picture, inch by inch, using her body as the canvas, is London-based visual artist, Liz Atkin.


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Visual artist, Liz Atkin, transforms her compulsive skin-picking disorder into colourful body art, highlighting frequently picked areas and exploring them through a variety of mediums. Photograph: Liz Atkin


Liz demonstrates the relationship between artistic expression and mental illness better than anybody else.

She has spent the past 12 years turning her compulsive skin-picking disorder, dermatillomania, into art, and is best-known for her frantic, scribbled, sketches on the scattered newspapers of the London tube, which she distributes to fellow commuters for free.

‘Compulsive charcoal free drawings’ are Liz’s unique way of tackling skin-picking and spreading awareness: “It’s my tool to stop my picking and to keep me calm.

“But it’s also advocacy for mental health and just an act of kindness. It’s a nice thing to be able to lean across a carriage and say would you like this drawing?”

Liz respects her disorder which she’s had since 7-years-old. She’s learnt to use drawing as a natural sedative for the illness: “I feel like they’re both having a conversation.

“I listen for what that feeling in the body is – it’s this kind of itchy, scratchy energy – and, for me, drawing with charcoal is the perfect way to kind get that out.

“Charcoal is scratchy, it’s crumbly, it’s messy, so I can’t pick.”

Liz creates up to 60 drawings a day and over 10,000 in a year, which reflects the repetitive, hyper-focused nature of the disorder.


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‘Compulsive charcoal free drawings’ are Liz Atkin’s tool for slowing down her dermatillomania and raising awareness of this uderepresented illness.



Before discovering drawing, Liz studied a Masters in dance. Her first assignment was to view her body as an observer. This would change the way she looked at her body forever: “I recorded my movement and it was the first time I saw what my body does without me cognitively realising.”

Upon re-watching 3 hours of footage, Liz discovered it was “fractions of a second” before she was picking her skin. Suddenly, she saw her disorder as this autonomous force: “Nobody taught me how to do this, I just developed it.

“A bit like a ballet dancer moves their feet over and over, my fingers have done this thing over and over.”

Liz attributes her visual art to this experience – urged to explore her illness and her body through a variety of mediums.

It appears that until we learn how to channel it, creativity can be destructive before it’s constructive.

Perhaps creativity is a survival mechanism that has evolved to meet the emotional needs of humans.

For, is there much difference between the creativity involved in building a shelter to protect ourselves from external forces, and the creativity involved in painting a picture to protect ourselves from internal forces?

Dave offers a complementary thought: “People talk about the evolution of species, but we also have the evolution of problems.

“It’s not surprising that our coping mechanisms have become more esoteric and less tangible because our society has become less tangible.”

There is obviously a connection between the two, which is difficult to explore without implying that creativity is always accompanied by mental illness.

However, anecdotally, the creative expression of mental illness does appear to help.

Deborah gingerly admits: “I’ve had depression for so long now, I don’t remember not having it.

“When the book was finished and people said they understood it, that was good because – I guess secretly for me – people were telling me they understood how I felt.”

“Art literally saved my life,” Liz chokes.

And Dave soberly reminds us: “You know, everybody has sh*t in life. It could be anything and it can kind of make you feel abnormal, but the fact that everyone feels like that shows that everyone’s got an Achilles heel.

“I do think with a lot of mental illnesses, there are certain things that it gives you as well, and too much of that just comes at a price.

“So, don’t be ashamed of it. Just accept it, acknowledge it, and use it.”


‘The Dog Who Dared to Dream’ – A bedtime story for adults

I rarely make it past the event horizon of a Waterstones bookshop – by the hand, I’m waltzed in. That might just be me getting high on the coffee fumes, though.

Often, I visit unintentionally and without any clear idea in mind. When this happens, I think the book chooses the wizard (sorry, my geek is showing). How I’m feeling directly affects the style of story that I pick. And, I feel a lot and very sporadically, so I have a strange, mixed collection.

Readers, notoriously romantic, are far more promiscuous in this way.

Upon my most recent redirection over the threshold – tripped up by the Costa sign – I dug out £50 worth of book vouchers. YAAAASS! I’d been saving these for when the landing felt just right. This time, I hadn’t bumped into an old lady on my mad dash in (that happened), so I considered today the day.

I was in the zone and ready to spend. I had the ethereal Grimes chiming between my ears, two hours before work, a few books in mind and one or two chance cards still to play. So, I followed my emotional ear through the bookshelves and found something that just happened to strike a chord.

‘The Dog Who Dared to Dream’ by Sun-mi Hwang was an immediate shout. It looked very small, very plain, very quaint and not very important. It’s about life from the perspective of a dog. I saw it and thought ‘same’.

I wasn’t in the mood for reading anyone’s magnum opus, or the next fictional bible, and I was trying to remove myself from sequels for the time-being. A standalone, 167 pages was a decent sized slice of cake for now. Quality over quantity was my reasoning; sometimes big reads can be exhausting and ultimately disappointing.

Massive, complex and elaborate plots were also not on my agenda (for once). I needed something simple and void of ego. I didn’t want to be in analysis mode nor did I really want to be impressed. Pleasantly surprised was more of what I had in mind. I wanted to be eased into a story, to float through its plot points and to be returned, only mildly changed, to the sea. It just had to be pure and of good intention, heart-warming at most.

‘The Dog Who Dared to Dream’ was that tiny drop in the ocean for me, and I mean that as a compliment. Nothing about it was overwhelming or particularly revolutionary, but it definitely didn’t feel like a waste. Sun-mi Hwang never went on longer than she had to nor did she cut anything too short. Her story held its own and enchanted me with neutral colours. It was incredibly simplistic and morally straight. A sophisticated children’s book is how I’d put it.

Our main protagonist is Scraggly. She’s a mongrel pup, kind of the ugly duckling of the pack, and we follow her as she grows, learning all about this terrible world. Life feels fairly dull and dreary through little Scraggly’s eyes. However, more notably, it seems hopeful. Literally, nothing goes right for the pup or her owners, but something optimistic is continuously bursting from Scraggly’s actions.

It is a classic tale of dog meets man and the shared burden such a bond brings. Problems arise for both Grandpa Screecher and Scraggly, which are a direct effect of their relationship. Amidst the conflict, though, the story does cleverly highlight how similar Scraggly, as a dog, and to weary Grandpa Screecher, himself. The menacing old cat next-door said it best:

‘You dogs look down at the ground all day and can’t do anything about it. You can’t see the bigger picture.’

As dog is man’s best friend and dogs are often said to be a reflection of their owners, I considered this to be a statement about people too. There were never many direct insinuations about human character, only moments like this where you were expected to make the connection by yourself.

In fact, we only understand Grandpa through what Scraggly is around to hear and see. She is always aware when something is wrong, but she is never quite sure what. A few lines of dialogue between Scraggly and Screecher reveal how difficult Screecher’s life is: he has two estranged children that he’s desperate to reconnect with and, generally, wishes to rebuild family relations for the love of his grandson. This is the kind of life that he ironically goes on to impose upon Scraggly by separating her from her pups, over and over again. We, also, gauge that he and Grandma are fairly poor, which results in such bad decisions that deeply scar Scraggly.

It’s funny, the secrets that the humans confide in Scraggly are our only source of character building. In order to paint a picture of who everyone is and the kind of life they live, what Scraggly hears is key. I loved this and thought it was quite a unique approach. Although we only ever get snippets of what is really going on because Scraggly is just a dog, everything she gets to hear is entirely truthful and vivid. It’s surprisingly moving, in a roundabout way.

If you own a dog, you’ll understand how accurate this is. To me, it highlighted how trusting the bond between human and dog is. It’s not just the puppy who loves unconditionally; even as a shitty human we fall hard. However, throughout the story, Grandpa Screecher repeatedly breaks this trust. In this case, he’s that shitty human, treating Scraggly as just another breeder dog to make money from. Nonetheless, his love for Scraggly is always evident. He never parts with her, even though he has many chances to. But, this could just be interpreted as selfishness. I do sometimes think keeping a pet can feel like so. This was an interesting thought to be left with.

There are many things that Scraggly just has to accept in life, and the same goes for Grandpa and Grandma. Scraggly is very hopeful and somewhat dreamy, so this is bitter kibble for her to swallow. Death is a huge theme throughout, and I think it’s actually used to unite every species that appears in this book. It is the one thing we all have in common, after all. Next-door’s cat is the realist to Scraggly’s idealist and provides some of the harder hitting lines.

‘This is what life is, you know. You say goodbye, they die, and life goes on. I know how it goes. I’ve never known a dog who lived with all her pups.’

This is where the sophistication in an otherwise child-like story comes from. It’s very dark but in a deeply intuitive way, quietly stirring familiar emotions. This isn’t a heavily descriptive book; the language is as simple as it gets. So, it’s charming how well Hwang conveys her message in a few simple words. She’s truly mastered the art of showing rather than telling. Something about this style of story-telling was effortless and, honestly, just pleasant.

It reminded me of a fairy-tale, or mythology, like folklore. The tone is distinctive. It had a clear direction and it didn’t waver. In fairness, the basic English could be excused as just a result of translation – ‘The Dog Who Dared to Dream’ was originally written in Korean. Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I kind of inhaled the short sentences like a breath of fresh air.

I shed a single tear at the end. I didn’t expect to cry; I’d actually been quick to accept that the emotions I’d feel would be subtle. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised. I found it odd that such a predictable and simple ending hit me at all. It was very fitting ending, though. Heart-warming like I expected and so desperately needed.

Even though I said it was the kind of read that I could switch off during, I do think it’s the kind of book you could return to and uncover a lot of symbolism. I have a strong sense that the persimmon tree, which plays an integral role in the story, has some deeply rooted history in Korean culture. I think it was linked to the folklore involving it’s used to predict the severity of winter, something which directly and indirectly takes many lives in this story. I’m not sure, I’ll have to look into it, but it was a very present tree. The persimmon was practically a character in itself.

Anyway, overall, this was a pleasing and humbling read. I actually read ‘The Dog Who Dared to Dream’ in just under 4 hours – and I probably ate in between, or got distracted by Netflix, knowing me. There was a definite feeling of wholeness when it was over. The story was nice and rounded and just nice…it was just nice. I don’t know how else to explain it.

I’m going to apply my weird rating system now and give this book a, fitting, 3.5 dog-ears out of 5. It’s in my recommend pile. If you fancy a bedtime story in your old-age, ‘The Dog Who Dared to Dream’ is the perfect way to unwind and bring it back to basics.

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Thank you, Sun-mi Hwang!







Short Story: Long Story

Death can always find Life in the graveyard, her legs in a basket, painting bones with fresh coats. Thick, sticky droplets that drip from her fingertips become impaled on blades of grass; he walks to her, through a field of new colours. On her hands and knees, she kneads the soil, replanting flowers clipped for the grave. Her heavy, exhausted breath produces winds so strong that the headstones are stripped of scripture. He sometimes sits with her, under an infinity of daytime stars, to watch her moulds rise from the stale dough as it bakes.

Early morning, out past her white picket fence, she watches him. He wanders the shore in search for sandcastles to trample, fish to pluck from the ocean and men to drown, but all with a dreamy look in his eyes. He prefers to think of his cosmic hand of destruction as an instrument, which instead deconstructs life’s complexities, keenly. He views each of his five bony fingers as separate tools on a switch-blade knife, and his work as that of a tinkerer.

He tears things apart with wonder. He enjoys the vulnerability that comes with removing the face of a clock and exposing the delicate mechanisms beneath. Between gears, he places a piercing fingernail, jamming the rotations, just see what happens.

When hearts stop beating, he likes the way the last rhythm is often the most creative. It’s boundless, desperate. Life’s essence becomes a frantic conductor, pulling as many heartstrings as it can, at once. A dying heart is a rippling harp, plucking noise from the gut. Sounds that fray and snap as the musician’s breath cracks. The most beautiful melody plays and without fear of hitting a wrong note, but ultimately it always ends on a flat. Finally, the muscles in the musician’s arms stiffen, thumbs no longer pulse but gush, and there’s silence. Only death stands to applaud.

Late morning, by the river that she bled from the North, through the buzzing field and into the dank Graveyard, he often takes a break. Occasionally, she will catch him skipping the odd stone across the calm waves, revelling in the only life he can bring to an object. He, also, likes how the ripples attempt to break the water, yet it remains united, moving with the chaos, fluid and smooth until stillness wins. The pebble’s motion fascinates her in other ways; she’s reminded of how everything must end. She can never predict when the stone will remember that it is, in fact, a stone and lose its footing. One, two, three… it suddenly fails to bounce back and streamlines, slipping fast into the cool depths.

Early afternoon, she sometimes carries his scythe down to the beach-merging forest. She meets him with a fluttering heart; he catches butterflies on his tongue and crunches. He inhales the wind beneath their wings, creating a new vacuum of space to be filled. She opens the heavens and he washes everything down with a sky of rainwater, smiling. He thanks her, taking his scythe from her steady hands. She watches him as he tackles trees and grapples grass, scalping the Earth. It fascinates Life, how Death must crack and make an omelette out of every egg that she lays.

Death always believes she can do better: she can build higher, expand wider, revise foundations and strengthen the entire construct. He never thinks she’s failed, though, quite the opposite; he knows that everything she does is magical. He thinks she is spectacular. Before lighting a match in the art gallery, he always marvels each one of her creations. All of which he has hanged in his heart, where they swing eternally lifeless – with him, he forever carries the weight of her many imaginings.

He works much later into the evening than she does. Merciless but meticulous he is. He takes things slow, acting as a sort of quality control measure. Whereas, her craft is a talent. It’s something that she does so effortlessly with time, cleverness and only a handful of atoms. Like beads of a select number of colours, she strings them in an infinite number of patterns. She threads marvellous accessories around which she fashions a full body of attire. Oftentimes, he returns home with her full creations as separate entities: donning a fur coat, sipping wine from a hollowed out tusk, and merrily whistling each stolen breath away.

She grins from the kitchen window as he tosses his thick, black cloak over the burning sun, eliciting night. He makes his way back home, kicking stones from his path. In passing, he pulls a weed from the front garden for her to reimagine.

Just to toy with him, Life places the crippled plant within a vase to wither. The weed wastes there for days before it comes time for him to claim it. He likes this one, though, so he takes one of her old journals and presses it. Stale brown juices branch out across the paper and pale greens flush the page – life-forces still looking for something to feed. He laughs. Like ink, the tears of the weeping weed write a story, and without Life or Death acting as ghost-writer. As always, he’s impressed.

Life creates and Death destroys, but, mostly, they just observe and leave an awful lot open to interpretation – like all great artists should. It’s not really their place to pull the feathers of a bird’s wings West nor East, here nor there, to nor fro. They only serve to set new-born chicks free, and then catch them when the fall from the sky, frail and old. Where creation chooses to fly with vigour and youth is creation’s business, only.

Short Story Excerpt: Metal Health

His footsteps were hard and fast, like two marbles dropped from the level-three balcony, erratically bouncing across the floor – a sort of pitter pattering. A pebble followed by a rock – he was heavier footed on the left. The sounds of his movements tailed him, sounds bursting with energy but dampened by the greatness of the entrance hall. The harder he stomped, the smaller he felt. The walls around him were high and white, grey in the night, cold and blank. Only one desk stood as reception. It swung in a curve like the curling moon, and no person sat manning it. He was a tiny, solitary cloud rolling on through the dark, and showering across the polished, black stone. His own weather was chasing him out of the building.

By this hour, his bones felt like glass, and the juices of his eyes were sour, stinging, like boiling oil sizzling. He strained his neck and tugged desperately at the choke-hold of his tie. With a sweating palm, he patted down one clammy surface with another – his neck, his brow. He could feel a full sweat coming on. His towel rag of a hand absentmindedly slipped deep into his coat pocket, and his fingers flipped through a wad of green notes as if they were files from the office. He then nervously pulled at their elastic restraint.

With his briefcase in hand, he slammed his adjoining forearm into the push bar of an imposing, corporate, tinted-glass door. The impact ached more than it should have. Something inside his briefcase rolled, shifting the weight from one corner to the other, and a tiny collision sounded. He thought nothing of it.