From the Comments: Labels, Illness, Creativity, & Elitism

In the last discussion on positive and negative effects of the various mental illness labels, a few comments came together on a tangential topic that truly deserves its own conversation. In response to the “high-functioning” label, Jen said,

“I don’t call myself “high functioning”, because I think it’s a bit of an elitist term, but I do understand why it’s used and that there has to be some name for what that term means that we can use to describe people who are able to, well, function, despite being seriously ill.”

I want to pause here on the idea of elitism in some labels. I thought for a while before responding with “I agree that it is often elitist — at the very least, it sounds elitist. Those who aren’t ‘high-functioning’ probably find it elitist (I would). In truth, I don’t think there’s anything truly elitist in being able to ‘pass.'” I believe the elitism heard in the “high-functioning” label is a direct result of the way the term is defined and the connotations that come with it. It is double-edged in that it has one set of connotations within the mental health community (including professionals and supporters) and another set of connotations within the general public. The latter includes the idea that the high-functioning mentally ill have particular talents resulting from their diagnoses. (No specific links here necessary, I think. Just google “Mental Illness Creativity.”) To wholesale excerpt some (just some) of my thoughts on this point:

“Without exaggeration or hyperbole, I HATE…the fetishistic and romanticized* view of the so-called ‘high-functioning mentally ill.’…What really makes us “high-functioning” is that other people think we’re not mentally ill. What’s worse…is the seemingly universal tendency to attribute whatever exceptional behavior might be exhibited to the peculiarities of the [diagnosis]. Nash is a genius who suffers schizophrenia — he is not a genius because he’s schizophrenic… If Van Gogh was mentally ill, he was an amazing painter as well — His illness did not paint; He did. Same with Woolf and Plath and Wallace and god knows how many others…And while I am no fucking genius, I know that the things I can do are done by me — Not By My Disorder. I know this because my disorder is debilitating, and I don’t produce solidly when sick. I think this is the most damaging part of the high-functioning label in the general public. Not only is our accountability taken away when we’re given the ‘mentally ill’ label (‘Oh, she’s not really responsible for her actions right now.’), but we lose credit for those things we work really fucking hard to do (‘Well, I could do that too if I were crazy.’).”

While we’ve already had a few comments on this, I’d like to return the conversation specifically to Jen’s comment on elitism. Not to single anything out, but for the sake of discussion, I’m also pulling a comment from Natalie to the fore:

“…our higher than average intelligence, penchant for thinking outside the box, creativity, passion, etc. has everything to do with our particular diagnoses.”

Partially because it is out of context and partially because of the nature of the post, what is not clear is whether this comment is speaking of the “high-functioning” or anyone with a mental health diagnosis. I’m inclined to believe it is the former because the implications of the latter are just cruel. That being said, the former lays out a specific definition of “high-functioning” that has not yet been discussed on this site — one that feeds elistism, one that I see as oppressive in the exoticization* it leads to, one that I see as infantilizing in how it strips away accountability and credit. I personally see this definition and connotation of the “high-functioning” label as perpetuating the stigma surrounding MI matters by simply finding yet another way to extend the labels of abnormality and otherness.

I, however, started this forum to hear multiple perspectives. What, if any, are the relationships between mental illness and creative ability? What, if any, are the relationships between these abilities and levels of functioning? I’d like to posit here that our personal definitions of “functioning” are at the core of this topic.

*For the record, the hurried nature of the comments means I wrote “fetishizing and romanticized.” While both are true in my opinion, a more appropriate term for what goes on is “exoticization.”

[Note on the image accompanying this post. I draw and write and do other creative-ish and sometimes sorta-smarty things. I believe I would do these things without my disorder. Being able to do these things is what push me forward.]

It has come to my attention that, for the sake of productive discussion, I should make a few things explicitly clear. It is not always easy to be both moderator and participant in this forum. The moderator asks the questions I usually make bold in the discussion topic. The participant gives her opinion in these posts as a way to start the discussion and to give forum members something to respond to. These are simply my opinions, and I thoroughly expect and hope for disagreement. I do write with conviction because, like all of us, these are issues in which I have a great deal invested. While maintaining that conviction, I strive to meet the expectations set forth in the spirit of the Terminology page. I ask that we all do the same.

  1. Natalie said:

    “I, however, started this forum to hear multiple perspectives.”
    Just to hear, or also to listen? Your take on that excerpt of my comment suggests the former.

    Rather than rehash what I was getting into yesterday, or go further down that rabbit hole, only to piss people off even further, I’m posting a couple of links. I am anything but alone in my views – and no, it’s not just “mass media romanticizing of mental illness,” the first link is an extremely well-known group of fellow crazies. If you’ve never heard of The Icarus Project, check it out:

    The second is an article from the Stanford Journal of Neuroscience, hardly folks I would suspect of romanticizing or fetishizing anything, except maybe their pocket protectors:
    One of the author’s many observations gleaned form a review of 20+ studies is this:
    “Thus far, we have seen that manic depressive disorder and schizophrenia are both significantly more prevalent in artists than in the rest of the population, that neurologically they share similarities with the biology of creative thinking – in short, that these altered mental states could indeed contribute to creativity and artistic production. Knowing that this connection is scientifically supported, how are we to ethically treat these illnesses?”

    Does that mean I think any mentally ill person who is not Munch is a total loser? No. When I say creativity, I mean just that. An ability to see things differently. An ability to think outside the box. A desire to challenge the status quo through various means. And so on. Does this mean I think anyone who sees things differently, thinks outside the box, challenges the status quo, etc. is mentally ill? No. I’m referring to correlations, not absolutes.

    And as far as who that portion of my comment was directed at, actually, I was referring to the grand expanse of those of us labeled “mentally ill.” I do in fact find the label “high functioning” terribly elitist. As you have asked elsewhere, high functioning by what standards and according to whom? Is someone not “high functioning” because they are in such an extremely altered state in that given moment, hour, day, week, month, or year that they cannot possibly act “normal”? (I’ve had months where I would have been considered anything but “high functioning” by medical and social standards.) Have some people perhaps never been able to act “normal” but are indeed “high functioning” by other measures? Are others not “high functioning” because a reaction to meds has numbed them into oblivion? Are still others not “high functioning” because they are perhaps experiencing the cognitive decline so clearly revealed in numerous studies on the long-term effects of meds?

    This really comes down to a medical versus non-medical view of “mental illness.” I don’t see our brains as broken, I see our “episodes” and “illnesses” as responses to trauma, responses to the human experience, different ways of thinking and being in the world, etc. This doesn’t mean I don’t advocate treatment or support or intervention (I won’t get into that here, but my views on that are all over my blog). On Meredith’s blog, I gave this analogy of the medical versus non-medical view of Deafness:

    Medical: cochlear implants and/or hearing aids as early as possible, forcing kids to lip read and speak despite their personal preferences, seeing Deafness as a medical problem to be “fixed” or “cured.”

    Non-Medical: teaching sign as early as possible and using it as main form of communication, embracing and participating in Deaf Culture, seeing Deafness as an integral part of the self, something without which the individual would not be the same person.

    Many Deaf people have experienced great trauma and harm, both physical and emotional, from the medical approach (my ex of 3 years included). And the societal delusion that Deaf people cannot function at the same level as hearing people keeps many from seeking higher education, anything beyond a vocational calling, etc., because they themselves buy into the myth and because of the outright discrimination born from the myth.

    I have many Deaf friends who excel in higher education, are extremely successful academically, professionally, and socially, etc. One thing they all have in common is that they don’t buy into the medical approach or society’s myth (not to say that none of them having hearing aids, etc., some do, it’s a very personal choice).

    If we “mentally ill” are offered support, education, therapy, understanding and compassion when we first experience crisis, does that change our view of what we are experiencing? If someone tells us recovery is possible, might that be the necessary component to believe it ourselves? If, on the other hand, we’re told we have a chronic illness for which there is no option but lifelong medication, might we just start to believe that as well, particularly when being told this in a vulnerable state by doctors who “know best?”

    And I officially went tangential when I intended to write a couple of short paragraphs at most. (Like I am capable of every writing a couple of short paragraphs at most.)

  2. Natalie said:

    I left a comment, but I think it was eaten for moderation, seeing how terribly concise it was.

    • said:

      Hey! Found it! So, I believe the deal is that comments that are either long, contain more than one link, or both, are suspected spam comments. Rest assured that I will find them and post them as quickly as I can.

  3. Jen said:

    Natalie, it might just be a glitch with the site. The comment that I left the other day disappeared but she later found it.

    Abuot the questions. I think when people experience dramatic emotional highs and lows and harrowing experiences and life outside reality which makes no logical sense……with any of these situations, you have some material to use in a creative outlet. I don’t think that being ill makes you creative, but I think it gives you more material to use in your creative ways that you might have had if you were never ill. I know I wouldn’t write a blog for years about my life if there was not this specific thing in my life that caused me to want to write to create awareness about the thing, to explain the thing to myself and to the outside world, to legitimize my life, in a way. So I write about it. I have always loved writing, but that started when I first learned to write as a child, and was not caused by my illness.

    I think the dramatic experiences people hoave with Depression, Bipolar, and Psychosis, lends itslef to interesting writing and art work and music, and so people might be drawn to those works by those mentally ill artists, because of what is in those works. That doesn’t mean that the artist wouldn’t be able to create without the experiences; it means she would have less dramatic experiences to create with. If that makes sense.

    I do think that people sometimes use creative outlets as therapy, which naturally makes sense. But I don’t think that this means everybody with a mental illness is creative or would even want to do anything creative for therapy or for any other reason. I know the only thing I ever liked in a mental hospital was art therapy. And I know nothing about being an artist; but I loved it and made some decoupage pieces that I gave away to people who thought they were great. Later I would sometimes do decoupage at home, but it never felt as interesteing as i t did in my days on a locked psychiatric ward where there was nothing else to do. I think I needed to do something creative to feel alive at that time, and I needed to feel like I could create something, because that would mean that I had value, which I did not feel like I had otherwise in that time in my life.

    Hmmm…..I’m not sure I’m answering the questions asked in this post. I do think that there are a lot of different ways of looking at this issue, and surely we will not all agree on it. But I tend ot believe that if musicians, writers, and artists who died by suicide were able to survive instead of dying, they would have gone on to produce more art and music and writing, and the idea that people only do their best works at their lowest points of mental health really bothers me, because I know that at my lowest points, I could not excel ant anything much.

    Overall, I tend to believe that people create great art in spite of their illnesses, and not because of those illnesses. I think the type of art they create is related to their illness, but not the fact that they create in the first place. That is my basic opinion on this topic.

    • said:

      Jen — I cannot agree with everything you said more. Especially that people use creative outlets as therapy. I believe that all people do it, that it is ingrained in Humanity to express what we think and feel through various means. So, I logically can’t see the ability to do so as stemming from an illness. I don’t usually do much that people normally call “creative” or “art,” but my work requires a certain amount of creative or critical thinking — “thinking outside the box,” if you will. And I know that being able to do that work is the most important form of therapy I have. Nothing helps me process my life and my self like exercising those muscles.

  4. Well said, Jen. I certainly appreciate your comment about blogging due to being mentally ill. I too, since it is my only blog, would not have started a blog except to discuss my thesis. But it has helped a lot. I believe it is a great contributor to my being higher-functioning for a couple of reasons: (1) I have met people like me for the first time since I’ve been diagnosed and people who are willing to talk about their diagnoses. (2) Putting it out there causes me to write for an audience, which in turn makes me really think about things (most of the time) before I blog. It has been a great processing tool.
    I addressed the creativity with mental illness question in “I dub thee.” I won’t replay it here. I am a sculptor, tho I have not sculpted anything since September 2010, which isn’t long but once I was medicated, it was longer until I had worked with myself on it enough to get back in there. Definitely the highs and lows made for interesting and self-fulfilling art. For me my studio was sacred and I needed access round the clock. When I was in a mood (often when unmedicated), I went into my studio. Most of the times things happened, not always making something. But it calmed me. It was the only place I could go to tell my secrets, let out my insides, and no one could say anything about them. And I could see my insides on the outside. (
    That art also made me higher-functioning but I was by no means high-functioning in my definition. But after such episodes (I only needed 15 minutes sometimes or if I wasn’t stirred up yet, 5) I could return to the family and deal with life. But I have also given life to and allowed my feelings, the big ones, to breathe. Much of my art has been cathartic and I have begun moving into a different place. The episodes and great highs and lows made my emotions more accessible. With meds, they are not sitting on my sleeve. However, when my highs and lows were unmanageable, I tried to manage them with art, but always (or most times) found it was impossible, I was too out there.

  5. Alan Smithee said:

    Hmmm. I think, Natalie, in response to your comment I would like to say that one can “listen” to another’s opinion/point-of-view/argument and still have the same opinion they had originally. I think suggesting that one not changing their opinion after considering other point of views is not listening would be detrimental to this forum. Perhaps it is because I know BackwardE IRL and I know that she has intense discussions by arguing points academically and intensely but still know her to consider other arguments that I read the initial post in that vein. That is my first thought. My brain is very slow this week, and I am being called away at my job, but I do want to digest both points from the initial post and Natalie’s and Jen’s comments and hopefully come back with something intelligible to add to this thread.

    • Natalie said:

      Hey Alan – I appreciate you pointing this out. Reading my comment in retrospect, I came across like an opinionated know-it-all bitch who indeed expects everyone to agree with me or shut up.

      To ∃ and the rest of the forum – I’m really sorry I came across that way, and please know that was not my intent. I took the misinterpretation of my commentary as not “listening,” when it was likely just misunderstanding (or being unaware of) the intricacies of my viewpoints and the life experiences from which they were born.

      My viewpoint on both the elitism of “high functioning” and the link between creativity and mental illness stem in large part from my experiences with my mother, who was and still is one of the most intelligent and creative individuals I’ve ever known. That said, she spent large portions of my childhood curled into a fetal position, unable to be anything close to “high functioning,” both while on meds and following repeated abrupt withdrawals – reading Whitaker’s work is allowing me to make guesses as to what was going on with her and when. But at the time, my brother and I were terrified and clueless – I took a part-time job after school to close the gap between welfare and rent, food, etc., and we agreed to never say a word to our father or anyone else, knowing full well he would take us away from her and do his best to have her locked up. Was she “high functioning” or creative while comatose or while clearly psychotic? Fuck no. At least not in a “productive” manner or in any tangible way. Did she do some of her most amazing work in the periods of clarity in between? Yes. Is she creative because she is “mentally ill?” No. Is there something about her brain and/or life experiences that contributes both to her “mental illness” and to her immense creativity? I believe so. And I think the same of myself.

      I don’t need or want people to agree with me, I much prefer honest dialogue. But I also don’t want anyone to assume that my belief in the link between creativity and mental illness is romantic or fetish-oriented (which is why I reacted so passionately to this post, I assumed that assumption had been made about me, and you know what happens when we assume). Trust me, there was nothing remotely romantic about my childhood.

      Jen – Your response is awesome, and what you shared definitely makes me think about my own views, for which I’m grateful. I love the way you explained where you’re coming from. Your explanation of blogging/writing is similar to my own motivations, and I too have been a writer since childhood.

      • said:

        Natalie : Thank you for sharing about your mother. Honestly, I want to completely agree with your conclusions regarding whether there is “something about her brain and/or life experiences that contributes both to her ‘mental illness’ and to her immense creativity.” (If stats isn’t your thing, they call it Confounding…Let’s be honest, no one likes stats. I’m a giant dork.)

        Not to repeat what I said before, but I do think that this link is double-edged, with one interpretation within MI circles and another in the general public. I agree that there is nothing romantic or exotic about the things that make us either “mentally ill” or creative. My fear is that the general public — not you nor the rest of the MI community — sees the creative mentally ill as somehow exotic, which is historically a means toward stigma and oppression. All of us know what we go through as Life itself. It’s those who haven’t gone through it that worry me.

        Not to make this a hugfest, but I kinda love that we can disagree on some things and agree on others. I also love that we have a place to clarify our thoughts and find out what those things are.

        Thank you.

        • Natalie said:

          Okay, seriously, stop making me cry…lest I be compelled to say something stupid again. ;)

          And thank you.

      • Jen said:

        Natalie, I just wanted to say, I understand about your mother. My mother has Bipolar Disorder that has rarely responded well enough to treatment for her to be able to live a “normal” type life. When I was growing up, like you I often saw my mom curled up in fetal position. The rest of the time, she was up and throwing stuff at my head, pulling my by my hair, smacking me across the face, or, mostly, screaming at us all. I got to see the negative side of mental illness basically since birth. And, underneath all that, my mother is highly intelligent too, as well as creative. She can’t keep a job for more than two months, but for 20 years, she’s gotten several new jobs a year, every year.

        Having a parent with a mental illness and having your own mental health issues (I know you don’t consider it to be an illness like I do), is very difficult. I think it leaves us without a compass for what is supposed to be and what is not. I think it leaves us without the compassion and care that we might need as kids and even as adults. I was an adult from age four, I think. I raised my mother. She did not raise me. And then I got a mental illness that is considered more severe than hers. The fun never ends!

        I know for me, I have learned a lot about mental illness, from watching my mom’s life unravel over and over again. As well as from my own experiences. I haven’t seen my mom be able to accomplish much during her difficult times, which are the majority of her life, and I know that she could do much more with her brain if she were not mentally ill. She is high functioning, like us, but the price she has paid to avoid taking antipsychotic medications and avoid being labeled psychotic – by lying about her symptoms to her doctors – has been tremendous. She is a nurse so she never wants anyone to know how badly ill she is. I think because of seeing how her behavior led to her illness worsening, I am personally very honest with mental health professionals, and I don’t hide things. I also think I learned how to pass as an intelligent, and “normal” person, i.e., higher functioning, was by watching my mom’s life.

        I know I’m getting off topic here so I’ll stop now! b

        Just to add one thing: what I am getting out of these posts on this forum is that those of us who are higher functioning and are sick of the stigma might want to see changes happening in the world around how mentally ill people are portrayed. I think we need a revolution. Seriously. I am involved in mental health advocacy where I live, but we have a piss-poor turnout at our meetings because most people are too sick to care to go to an advocacy meeting or because they do not know our meetings exist. But I wrote this post a while ago, and though it is very rambling and touches on a variety of topics without sticking to a point, there are parts of it I wanted to share with you:

        • Natalie said:

          Jen – Once again, thanks so much for sharing something so intimate and painful. I feel like we get each other, or at least I feel like I get this part of you, and I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of what you shared…makes me feel less alone. So what if our views are a bit different, eh? Sometimes agreeing to disagree is just plain awesome. :)

          The experiences with each of our mothers probably has much to do with our individual takes on our own plights, treatment, etc. My mom actually did much better once she was off meds for good and clear of the nastiness of withdrawal. It still wasn’t a cakewalk, but much better, and she was pretty stable by the time I was 20 (having a very supportive stepdad enter the picture when I was 19 was immensely helpful in that regard). The years of on again, off again, not knowing what the hell was happening were not fun, but she tried really fucking hard. She always made it clear she loved us, which is probably why my brother and I were her fierce protectors and refused to leave her for our dad (that and the fact that our stepmother was incredibly abusive). And while her mental health “recovered” through other means, she’s suffered chronic health issues for the last 15 years due in part to the meds (hypothyroid, adrenal failure, and most recently, a heart attack because of the other two). So, yeah, needless to say, our differing points of view make complete sense.

          And TOTALLY agreed on the revolution!!! Bookmarking that post to check out tomorrow – thanks for passing it along. :)

        • said:

          Jen — I’m in. (I think maybe comments on your post are closed.) I agree with pretty much everything in that post. I also have that Foucault thing where I can’t separate Power from the Power/Knowledge dyad. We might all have different first steps, but I declared mine today when I launched a mutiny on Time ( just to declare my right to actively reframe history and carve a future. Power is violent and there is no such thing as a peaceful coup…I am uninterested in winning in a system whose rules are unjust (which may or may not be what NAMI is doing). I’d like to start changing the game. Next step: how?

  6. Alan Smithee said:

    Ha, I’m sure this will happen several times on this forum! We are talking about something that is very personal and important to us, and I’m super excited and proud of how we are handling it. I am so used to replying in the moment, and I get in a lot of trouble for it, pretty often. Like, almost every day. :) At work. :)

    So, all this to say that this thread of comments has made me even more in love with this forum and this group of people, in all of our perfect imperfect glory.

    Natalie, thanks for sharing about your mother. I am processing a lot of things right now regarding my mother, and her possible mental illness, and how it contributed to mine and blah blah, so it was really reassuring to read someone else being open about that tender subject. Hopefully soon I’m going to contribute to DF a reading response to The Drama of the Gifted Child, which is all about that.

    • Natalie said:

      Alan – Your response just made me cry, and I’m not sure why. But it probably has *nothing* to do with just how tender this subject is for me… :) (I’ve not read The Drama of the Gifted Child, but now I just might, and I look forward to reading your thoughts on it.)

    • said:

      I would like to second Alan’s comment that this particular discussion has also made me love this forum more. Further, I want to add that it makes me appreciate it more as well.

  7. said:

    I am compelled to give a little personal history here, which was definitely lacking in my original post. My personal epistemological framework (which guides how and what I know) as well as my spiritual belief system both require that I value knowledge gained through personal experiences above all else.

    Shortly after I was first diagnosed, the scientific literature on the correlation between creative and critical thinking and the occurrence of mental illness was thoroughly explained to me. Since then, I have asked a lot of questions of my professionals and of the literature, including the extent to which these correlation studies found statistical significance, whether those who study this relationship had been able to conclude meaningful statistical regression studies, whether statistical confounding had been ruled out as a contribution to the correlation, and whether psychologists, psychiatrists, and neurologists had conclusively found operators on creative thinking in those not diagnosed with a mental illness. The correlation (not causation) was originally brought up in my treatment for no other reason than the fact that my curriculum vitae said what it said. I was being braced for the expectation that, regardless of which treatment path I followed, as I grew healthier and more stable (i.e. as I grew less crazy or the craziness abated), I would most likely lose some (even a substantial portion) of my creative abilities. I admit that I did not react well to this prediction. I also admit that the way it was phrased to me was awful. In response to the degrading way in which she said it, a younger me threw something heavy and not small at that particular person’s head.

    I certainly see the relationship between mental illness and creativity, but I see it as a relationship of confounding and not correlation. I see the possibility of both as coming out of what we live through and who we are. I personally cannot believe that one leads to the other. The healthier I become, the more creative I am. The less crazy, the more I produce. Mania is one thing, but I promise my manic ideas SUCK in comparison to my non-manic ideas. Depression as inspiration is also real, but that is true for all people — the need to work things in our lives out through expression is what makes us human. And I can’t see our abilities to make something from that inspiration as related to our diagnoses.

    I threw things at that doctor because I honestly believe that calling this relationship a correlation (rather than confounding) or saying that it’s particularly heightened or special for the mentally ill is socially damaging. My personal beliefs create a gut reaction to it that is really hard to stifle. I hear it and know it’s usually meant as some sort of compliment, but I hear just another way to call this community Other.

    I’d like to also say that I am known to change my mind when so compelled. I do not know what “functioning” means, and I certainly do not know what “high-functioning” means. All I know is that through some arbitrary metric with which I do not agree, I’ve been given the “high-functioning” label. I also know that it should be the right of every mental health patient to define for themselves what “levels of functioning” operationally means in their lives. I believe it is the right of each of us to decide our own goals and to find the means to reach them. Although I know not everyone follows me on Twitter nor reads DF’s Facebook page, I offer a new definition of “functioning” almost everyday through those venues. Everyday I reevaluate what it means for me to function. Everyday I reassess how I’m going to reach that goal.

  8. Jen said:

    ∃- I don’t blame you for throwing an object at that person’s head, and I’m a pacifist! I think there are ways to say things that are tactful and many ways that aren’t. Choice of words is important. I think what they told you was B.S. and you know better than that person did, now, if she was correct.

    I also wanted to add to the chorus of voices praising this forum. I am really learning from all of you, and enjoy having a place where I can be my “higher functioning” self, openly, and be understood by the people I’m talking to about the things I’m talking about. In the MI community, where I live, I am a member of an organization that divides “family members” from “consumers”. So we have a “consumer council”, which exists so that those of us who have the actual illnesses ourselves can do some advocacy. Only, we have a lousy turnout because the “family members” don’t help us get the word out about what we’re doing and people don’t know we exist. The situation is very hierarchical, and very annoying. I have found it really difficult to accomplish anything within this organization since all decisions are made by a board of directors which I am not on, even though I do most of the work that is ever done by the consumer council as there are only three of us who show up at all the meetings.

    Having grown frustrated with that situation, and having no real discussions at our meetings, it is refreshing to talk to other people with mental illnesses who are interested in having discussions on the issues that affect our lives. So thanks for creating this forum, ∃!

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