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I was a psychiatric nurse for about six months in 2012. I learned so much about mental illness and behavior during that time through my communication with those patients. I saw Bipolar patients in their manic phase stay up for days at a time with virtually no sleep, endlessly moving and talking. I talked with others: super creative people, brilliant people, with amazing ideas for novels, philosophy, art. Some were homeless people who simply didn't function well enough to move that creative spark to the point of something tangible, let alone marketable.

Then there were all of those who had turned to substance abuse as a means of coping with their conditions: depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, etc., etc.

I bring this all up because I was thinking about Sibelius just now, a man who was an alcoholic, had severe bouts of depression, and likely had manic/depressive cycles. How did all of this affect his music? If he didn't have those illnesses, would his music have been as good?

What other examples of composers or performers with mental illness are you aware of?

How do you think mental illness impacts the creative process?
 

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There's quite a lot of recent reaction literature to this old idea of: madness/genius, a fine line etc. It's a tricky one to ascertain because it's one thing to have great ideas and another to have the wherewithal to carry them through. Which is not to say such a person hasn't got the ability, but I'd suggest that the presence of alcoholism/drug abuse, depression and other mental health issues act as impediments rather than drivers of creativity. On the other hand you have people whose behavioural quirks may well drive them, but they burn themselves out rather quickly.

I don't offer empty philosophising on this. Three years after moving to the Netherlands I acrimoniously split from my wife and having no other real support systems I ended up four months in a sort of hostel/halfway house while I got things together. I was the only person there with a job. I met a lot of people with the problems you outlined. Lots of interesting discussions. There was a fellow there who had published a novel years before, but he was a severe addict and had no mind for writing even though he talked about it. He also knew a great deal about both philosophy and music, particularly Wagner. This man is now dead.

I think there is definitely a discussion to be had about how certain frames of mind, affecting thought and behaviour, contribute to the creation of art under certain circumstances. Perhaps the ability to narrow down focus when necessary, to become obsessed and single-minded and perhaps even wildly egotistical at times. That sort of behaviour may not be associated necessarily with a mental/personality disorder, so I am sceptical of the direct link between madness/genius/creativity.
 

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I bring this all up because I was thinking about Sibelius just now, a man who was an alcoholic, had severe bouts of depression, and likely had manic/depressive cycles. How did all of this affect his music? If he didn't have those illnesses, would his music have been as good?
Isn't it possible that if he didn't have those illnesses, his music would have been better?

I have a good friend who's a writer and has had to fight depression, and in his case the depression eliminates the creative process.
 

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A lot of Composers had periods when they were amazingly productive alternating with periods when they were in despair, fearing their creativity was gone forever. This leads to speculation that some of them were bipolar or at least hypomanic.
One of the best explorations of this issue is Thomas Mann's novel Dr Faustus. The protagonist is a fictitious composer who sounds like a cross between Schubert and Schoenberg who does the deal with the devil. In his case he contracts Neurosyphillis and the Spirochetes in the early stage are a creative stimulant. Btw, Schubert, Schumann, and Smetena, among others, are all thought to have had Neurosyphillis. Mann's work was written in 1945 and is also an allegory about Germans selling their soul to the Devil (Hitler).
 

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And then one has to realize that there are some things that were long considered to be mental illnesses with full listing in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which have since been removed because they never belonged there. I wonder how many others have yet to be removed but ought to be.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 · (Edited)
And then one has to realize that there are some things that were long considered to be mental illnesses with full listing in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) which have since been removed because they never belonged there. I wonder how many others have yet to be removed but ought to be.
A very valid point. Mental Illness isn't black and white. It is a spectrum of which we are all a part. If one person is significantly different than everyone else, we label them as aberrant. Does that really mean that they are ill? Debatable.
 

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Heck 148, I don't believe Ravel suffered from mental illness . In his later years he developed a kind of neurological ailment which kept him from being able to perform the physical act of writing music . Which was terribly frustrating for him, because his mind was apparently full of musical ideas for creating what would have been new works .
 

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There have been some studies that indicate a possible correlation between creativity and bipolar mood disorder. The period of upswing in mood can be extreme and people in the various arts with bipolar talk about the feeling of being more creative. However, there's still controversy about the subject and the correlation is not considered proven.

There seems to be a fair number of comedians who suffer or have suffered from depression. They talk about it themselves as the comedy emanating from, or as an outlet for, their own depressed feelings and sometimes lack of self-esteem and/or lack of support/understanding when growing up.
 

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Another for our growing list of crazy composers: Hugo Wolf.

Don't know if one should make too much of it. There is perhaps a tendency to romanticize this idea of the lone genius, misunderstood and unrecognized, creating masterpieces that his contemporaries think madness. Which then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The sad truth is that when composers go nuts, they stop composing anything intelligible.

In the visual arts, we have the equivalent in Van Gogh, who famously cut off his ear, but he too didn't paint a thing during his bouts of madness.

It's a good question whether mental illness is more prevalent among creatives than among the general population. Mathematicians seem to be particularly susceptible. But I don't know if any actual statistics supports the popular image.
 

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I realize that the OP specifically refers to composers but the issue applies equally to performers. Here is an article by someone who was a close friend of of Glenn Gould, which directly addresses the topic .. http://21cm.org/magazine/artist-features/2017/08/03/how-glenn-gould-and-i-became-friends/

Two quotes...

"[Maloney] concluded that the pianist was likely affected by Asperger's syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism that was only formally identified in 1994, 12 years after Gould's death."

"Asperger's syndrome cannot explain Glenn's genius, of course - the stark originality of his conceptions, the way each of his ten fingers took on magnificent little lives of their own."
 
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