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Artists and Mental Health

“Who in the rainbow can draw the line where the violet tint ends and the orange tint begins? Distinctly we see the difference of the colors, but where exactly does the one first blendingly enter into the other? So with sanity and insanity.” Herman Melville, “Billy Budd, Sailor”

According to the World Health Organization, psychological disorders affect a third to nearly half of people at some point in their life.

The site for the documentary Shadow Voices: Finding Hope in Mental Illness states “More than 2.3 million people in the U.S. have bipolar disorder; 10 million have a depressive disorder. 5.4 percent of all Americans have a serious, on-going mental illness. Other reports state that 23 percent of Americans aged 18 and older have a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year, while 9-13 percent of children ages 9-17 have a ‘serious emotional disturbance with substantial functional impairment.’

“By some estimates, 35 percent of people will suffer from a diagnosed brain disorder during their lifetime.”

Many of the people who suffer mental health challenges are artists – often very accomplished and well-known actors, writers, musicians and others.

“Herman Melville developed debilitating physical and psychiatric disorders in middle age after writing, perhaps, the greatest of American novels, Moby Dick.” [From The many ailments of Herman Melville (1819–91), by John J Ross, Journal of Medical Biography.]

Over the course of many years of researching the psychology of creativity and reading about and interviewing artists, this topic of mental health and creativity continues to fascinate me.

One reason is that it is often reassuring to know that many artists have experienced health problems like anxiety and depression, for example (as I have to some degree most of my life), and have found the strength and resilience to continue being creative and productive.

Here are just a few more examples of these talented people.

Actor, screenwriter and singer (in her movie “De-Lovely”) Ashley Judd (a Phi Beta Kappa grad of the University of Kentucky, by the way) entered a treatment program in 2006 for personal issues, including depression and codependency.

In her early years she attended as many as 13 schools in 12 years, and became “what she calls a ‘hypervigilant child,’ raising herself under unpredictable circumstances, becoming lonely, depressed, isolated—all feelings she kept under wraps for years.”

[From my post Developing creativity: hypervigilance and highly sensitive people.]

The photo is from her memoir All That Is Bitter & Sweet, in which she reveals being sexually abused. She also writes that her family “is healthier than it has ever been.

“We have come far. In our individual and collective recoveries, we have learned that mental illness and addiction are family diseases, spanning and affecting generations.

“There are robust strains of each on both sides of my family — manifested in just about everything from depression, suicide, alcoholism, and compulsive gambling to incest and suspected murder — and these conditions have shaped my parents’ stories (even if some of the events did not happen directly to them) as well as my sister’s and my own.”

Read more quotes of hers in my post Ashley Judd: “If I engage in perfectionism, I am abusing myself.”

Actor Anne Heche was asked in an interview, “It seems that you quite suddenly snapped out of your insanity.”

She replied, “It’s not snapping out of anything. I had created a fantasy world where I was safe. I realized that the earthly life I created at the same time was now giving me the safety I’d always wanted. So I could integrate both lives.”  [The Advocate, Nov 6, 2001, from her memoir:  Call Me Crazy.]

Amy Tan

Amy Tan has admitted she didn’t do anything about her depression “for a long time, because, like many people, I worried about altering my psyche with drugs.

“As a writer, I was especially concerned with that. A lot of writers believe that the trauma and the angst that you feel is an essential part of the craft.”

But she realized she needed help and used Zoloft, and said, “I don’t believe that good writers are born through unhappiness.”

She also talks about some of the inspiration for her writing: “I think I was pushed in a way to write this book (‘The Hundred Secret Senses’) by certain spirits in my life – the yin people. They’ve always been there, I wouldn’t say to help, but to kick me in the ass to write.

“I’m educated, I’m reasonably sane, and I know that this subject is fodder for ridicule. But ultimately, I have to write what I have to write about, including the question of life continuing beyond our ordinary senses.”

[From my post Amy Tan and Writing and Depression.]

Crazy or just unusual?

Hearing voices or saying you are aware of ‘spirits’ is pathological or disordered, or at least “neurotic” according to traditional psychiatry.

But Harvard creativity researcher Shelley Carson, PhD notes in her book Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life, “Many highly creative individuals – both past and present – are clearly (as we used to say) neurotic. They have experienced long bouts of anxiety, irritability, or depression; yet they have found ways to use their state of negative affect to enhance their creativity.

“The negative feelings act as a motivator to be creative and creative work acts as a kind of self-administered therapy.”

Carson and other researchers also confirm a link between schizotypy (a milder version of schizophrenia) and creative achievement.

See my post Creative Thinking and Schizophrenia.

Also see my post The DSM and pathologizing human experiences and giftedness.

A good reference is the book by Daniel Nettle: Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature.

Lady Gaga

The musician and performance artist said in an interview, “I don’t touch cocaine any more. I don’t smoke. Well, maybe a single cigarette – with whisky – while I’m working, because it just frees my mind a little bit. But I care about my voice. The thrill of my voice being healthy on stage is really special. I take care of myself.”

But she also admitted using prescription medicine because “I can’t control my thoughts at all. I’m tortured. But I like that. Lorca says it’s good to be tortured. The thoughts are unstoppable – but so is the music. It comes to me constantly.”

[From Lady Gaga Talks Lupus, Eating & Smoking Habits, HuffPost, 05-23-10, referring to a subscriber only interview in the Times UK newspaper.]

Bipolar Disorder

Catherine Zeta-Jones checked into a psychiatric hospital for a short stay in April 2011 to deal with bipolar disorder, and revealed the fact to encourage more people to seek help, according to a Daily Telegraph news story.

Britney Spears

Former L.A. entertainment lawyer Terri Cheney commented in a 2008 LA Times article about young stars such as Britney Spears, who has been hospitalized more than once.

“The relentless exuberance, the irreverence, the constant defiance of rules — mania looks like fun on the outside, but it’s not,” Cheney said.

“It’s absolutely terrifying. You’re swept up by forces you can neither control nor understand. To me, it looks as if bipolar disorder has swallowed her whole.”

Her book “Manic: A Memoir” is about Cheney’s decades-long struggle with managing own her bipolar disorder.

There are many lists on the Internet of prominent people with bipolar – though a number of such lists seem medically questionable.

One list that seems valid, with solid information, includes this item: ‘Demi Lovato, actress and singer-songwriter: Just 18 years old, Lovato seemingly has a lifetime of experience under her belt. She has reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 top albums chart, starred in several Disney movies, and has battled bipolar disorder and depression from a young age. She revealed her illness not long after Zeta-Jones did the same, telling People, “I feel like I am in control now where my whole life I wasn’t in control.”

From 20 Successful People Who’ve Struggled With Bipolar Disorder.

Here is text from another list, with some of the people they mention:

Celebrities with Mental Illness, by Emily Lapkin and Medically Reviewed by Scott Pearlman, MD:

Rocker Sheryl Crow has talked about having once had such a bad stretch of depression that she couldn’t leave the house. She’s also said that she thinks about suicide every day.

Heavy metal legend Ozzy Osbourne was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the early 80s. He has also been treated for alcoholism and drug abuse.

Academy Award-winner Mel Gibson talked about his bipolar disorder in a 2002 documentary.

Grammy Award-winner Macy Gray was reportedly once diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Jim Carrey in Fun With Dick and Jane

Actor Jim Carrey has battled depression since he was a child.

Actress and writer Carrie Fisher has been very open in discussing her bipolar disorder, former addiction to cocaine, and time in rehab. Her semi-autobiographical novel, Postcards from the Edge, is about an actress recovering from an overdose.

Singer Rosemary Clooney suffered from bipolar disorder most of her life. She was once hospitalized after an onstage breakdown.

Terminator star Linda Hamilton had difficulty with bipolar disorder as a young adult. She admits she self-medicated with drugs and alcohol.

The author Kurt Vonnegut is thought to have suffered from bipolar disorder for many years. He once became so depressed he swore he’d never write again (fortunately it didn’t last).

Actor Richard Dreyfuss went public with his battle with bipolar disorder in the 2006 documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Like many with this condition, he’s struggled with a cocaine addiction and went through rehab.

Singer Sinead O’Connor revealed she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder on the heels of a suicide attempt after turning 33. She takes medications to manage her condition and help her sleep.

Rapper DMX has talked about having manic depression in his songs. When arrested in 2004, he had both Depakote and crack cocaine in his possession.

Another list is Depressed? 135 Famous People Who Struggled With Depression which claims that people they list “had their depression confirmed in one way or another, be it through biography, interview, or some other manner.”

Ansel Adams
Drew Barrymore
Halle Berry
Lorraine Bracco
Zach Braff
Russell Brand
Truman Capote

To close this lengthy post, here is a quote I like by Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl Interrupted:

“Insanity comes in two basic varieties: slow and fast. I’m not talking about onset or duration. I mean the quality of the insanity, the day-to-day business of being nuts.”

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Artists and Mental Health

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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Some excerpts from The Creative Mind are included in his newsletter .
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2011). Artists and Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 May 2011
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