There are two popular beliefs about mental illness – the creative genius and the violent criminal. The creative genius is romanticized by both people with a mental illness and without.
Not being able to sleep, thinking people are out to get you, believing you are Jesus, or hearing voices tell you to take all your medication or jump off a bridge, there is nothing romantic about any of those things. Most of them are terrifying. Those are realities behind mental illness for many who suffer from it.
I have heard and seen many teenagers and artists toying with the idea of being mentally ill because they want the image of creative genius. That image is appealing to them. They want to be seen as eccentric and strange (which you can be without being mentally ill). In many of those people, no mental illness is present.
The likelihood of being creative appears to be higher for those with a mental illness. There have been many brilliant and gifted people with bipolar disorder, and to a lesser extent schizophrenia, but the list of remarkable people without a mental illness is much longer. Here is a list of people with mental illnesses, if you look at a list of remarkable people during this same period, there will be many more without a mental illness.
I frequently hear mentally ill people talk about the link between creativity and their mental illness. Again, there does appear to be a link, and I know it is great to be able to say there is a “good” side or something positive that comes from having a disease, but for most people with a mental illness being creative is no savior. I know many mentally ill people and many of them are creative – writers, poets, musicians, painters, but I know many people who are not mentally ill that also do these things and do them very well. There are many creative people in the world. Even though we can all point to some artists that were remarkable and mentally ill, like Plath, Hemingway, Woolf, Kerouac, etc. The list of “greats” is longer on the side of not being mentally ill – it just is.
It is extremely unfortunate to me that on one side we have a romantic idea (possibly a myth) about mental illness (the creative genius), but when someone actually comes out as mentally ill generally that is not the image or idea that comes to their mind. The myth that comes to their mind is the myth of the mentally ill as dangerous. I know people who have asked a person who recently came out, “Have you ever hurt anyone?” The mentally ill are more likely to hurt themselves or be a victim of a crime than they are to actually be perpetrators of a violent crime.
I look forward to a day that when someone finds out a person has a mental illness, that there are no myths to fall back on. I want that person to be judged by their behavior and their character. Are they a writer? Are they a good writer? If they are a good writer, it must be because they work hard at it. Are they an artist? Are they a good artist? It must be because they have put a lot of time and effort into it. Are they kind? Are they loyal? Are they generous? Are they funny? Those are the ways I want those of us living with a mental illness to be judged.
Most of who I am has nothing to do with my mental illness and that is true for all of us who suffer from a brain disease. We are more like each other than not. There are no myths about people without a mental illness being a superhero or the bad guy. If there were, it might not bother you at first, but if most people thought one of those things about you, you would get tired and say, “Look, here I am. I’m not those things. I’m just an average person with good traits and bad traits. I’m human. Please see me that way.” And you would hope that they would, and that they could, all myths and romanticism put aside.
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