Do people with mental illness make better artists?

Many papers cover creativity and mental illness. Here, Hopezine Editor Erica Crompton delves into the discussion…

The Schizophrenic POP ART AHARON FARKASH Acrylic Painting, Courtesy of


Many papers have written about creativity and mental illness, and whether mental illnesses can improve creativity (Waddell, 1998). This report aims to address this conundrum. Furthermore, according to Waddell, there are limited scientific papers that evidence an association between creativity and mental illness. More contemporary opinion from artists who work with schizophrenia (Evans, 2017) conclude that to associate the two is actually “silly”. However, while the link between mental illness and creativity is currently unknown by science and the arts, it is established by service users that art can play a role in helping people with their recovery from a severe mental illness. According to service user artist Harding (2015) writing in The Lancet Psychiatry, art has not just helped with his own recovery but it has enhanced his own art practice by giving him very real experiences other people may not have had in their lifetime. Art also, by expressing the very real human plight and suffering, can make a person feel less alone in their own sufferings and/or mental distress (Stuart, 2018).


For every Van Gogh there are a significant number of people (Official National Statistics, see table below) inflicted with a severe mental illness (by ‘severe’ the author means ‘using secondary care services’) who are not famous artists or creative professionals.

Despite this, there’s still interest and inspiration drawn from artists producing work while at the same time suffering from a mental illness (Rexer, 2005).

Main section

This section explores artists with, and artistic expressions of, severe mental illness. A quick search of ‘mental illness and creativity’ on Google Scholar will bring up many papers exploring the theme. There are also many books that argue for and against the case for mental illness improving creativity, or the phenomena of ‘Outsider and Brut art’. However not all art produced by mental patients has value (Ebay, 2018). But it is said by patients with severe mental illness that producing artwork can derive inspiration from the darker emotions (Harding, 2015) as well as assist a patient in their recovery (Evans, 2017). It is also stated by Stuart (2018) that artworks such as film can help people locate and relate their own suffering and difficult experiences with the lives of others.


‘Madness’ has set people back since it’s been misunderstood during Medieval times, when mental illness was seen as demonic possession (Vittore Carpaccio’s 1496). Indeed according to the Van Gogh Museum (2016) and also Jones in The Guardian (2016) mental illness inhibits peoples artists abilities, rather than enhancing them.

Even during the age of Enlightenment, William Hogarth’s ‘The Rake in Bedlam’ is perhaps the best known painting of the period which depicts mental illness (Jones, 2015). Also known simply as The Rake, the painting shows us the roots of misunderstanding to mental illness, whereby health and morality mix, with themes of gambling, drinking, and visiting whorehouses all became viewed as part of the experience of mental illness (Page, 2004).


Perhaps the biggest drawback for people diagnosed with severe mental illness is the suicide statistics. Looking at schizophrenia as an example, according to a study by Palmer et al (2005) people with schizophrenia have a 5 to 10% chance of dying by their own hand within ten years of diagnosisand, according to Caldwell et al (1992) around two and half times higher than the general population.

In the frame of the arts, according to Stylist Magazine (2018), it is noted that one of the most cited Shakespearean quote all the world over:


“To be, or not to be; that is the question; Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer; The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles”

Act 3, Scene 1

The theme of suicide is elaborated on by Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus (1942) some centuries later. In Camus’ essay on suicide he raises the point that for a person to ask themselves: “Is my life worth living,” is the most fundamental question of philosophy we can pose to ourselves. Noting this alone can be empowering to a person with schizophrenia as it makes less of a victim of the person with a mental illness, and instead sets them out more as a philosopher (Camus, 1942).

Van Gogh

One well-known artist who fell victim to suicide was Van Gogh. There was an exhibition a couple of years ago called ‘On the Verge of Insanity’ at the Van Gogh museum in the Netherlands that explores the artist’s mental illness through his works and letters. It expelled the myth of the ‘creative genius’ and put forward the arguments that Van Gogh succeeded as an artist in spite of his severe mental illness, and not because of it (Van Gogh Museum, 2016).

Jones (2016) reports in The Guardian that in letters from Van Gogh to his brother Theo he broods more than once on an 1872 painting by Emile Wauters called The Madness of Hugo van der Goes, which shows the 15th-century Flemish painter as a victim of mental illness.

Art & suffering

It is not just fine art that details suffering from the prism of mental illness. Art of all kinds – literature through to performance art – informs us how our ancestors not just lived but also felt and can often reveal the secret dialogue we all have with ourselves at different stages in life. It can help us feel less alone in the dark. For example Akutagawa’s suicide note in The Life of a Stupid Man (1927). In his book Akutagawa goes into detail about his life and subsequent feelings living with a mental illness which we now know as depression. Reading especially about the lives of others helps people come to terms with – to cite British-Indian author Myra Syal – their lives and suffering. For example the title of her 1999 tome ‘Life isn’t all ha ha he he’.

Suffering and mental distress are no better depicted than in Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’ (1893) – a piece people might relate to at various stages in their lives. As Pitman (2011) notes in The British Journal of Psychiatry: “Edvard Munch is best known for The Scream, 1893, an image endlessly reproduced in the media to depict mental anguish. Explanations of the meaning behind the image abound, mainly focusing on an outpouring of emotion in response to suffering. Munch’s own explanation is revealed in his diaries, which recall the melancholy of a walk along a bridge with friends. Trembling in fear at the fiery sunset, he sensed ‘how an infinite scream was going through the whole of nature’. This dehumanised figure, into which viewers project their own neuroses, is not screaming but blocking out the scream of its existence.”

There’s colour and life that will always endure each and every fate, like in the case of the Italian painter Caravaggio, who according to Prose (2010) had his renaissance centuries after he’d retired to the heavens from a subsequently botched and traumatic life.

In an interview with Clinical Psychologist Simon Stuart (2018) “It’s easier to think of films that get severe mental illness badly wrong – Unsane is a recent, rotten example that springs to mind! But one film that I think deals beautifully with two pertinent psychological issues – the desire we have as human beings for love (and how difficult that can be), and the desire we have to get rid of emotional pain – is Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). It’s a film about what it is to be human, in short; to be both blessed and cursed with the ability to think, and relate, and remember. It is a beautiful piece of work”.

Service user perspectives

According to Harding (2015) it is established that art can play a role in helping people with severe mental illness recover. The artist states in The Lancet Psychiatry (2015) that his experiences of mental health have changed his art for the better. He says he has more experiences to draw from and he has experienced things that most people may not touch on in a lifetime. Even though he found it hard at times, he says: “I do think my illness is a blessing as it gives me new insight into what it is to be alive and human. It also lets me experience a broader spectrum of perception. I find the different ways the mind can perceive the world fascinating. It gives me a glimpse of what reality truly is. I feel I have resolved the past as much as I can, and have moved on from what has happened. This has been due to moving back to Bristol, with family and friends close by, and a great support network that includes the Bethlem Gallery. I have also stopped using drugs and have been having hypnotherapy and doing meditation, which has helped resolve destructive patterns of thinking and behaviour.”

Brut art

Art and mental illness can sometimes sit hand in hand and there is no better case for this than The Prinzhorn Collection which actually takes inspiration and the art itself from patients of a mental asylum. Based at Heidelberg’s University Hospital, in Germany, The Prinzhorn Collection holds more than five thousand drawings, oil paintings, wood carvings and textile works (Hauschild, 2013) all painted or produced exclusively by mentally ill patients. According to Fol (2015), this type of art sits within the art world as ‘Outsider art’ or ‘Brut art’ standing for all that is raw and untrained and socially excluded.

If the Prinzhorn Collection was all about outsiders and raw, untrained art, it would take an art insider to champion it (Rexer, 2005). By the turn of the 19th Century Surrealist established artists Max Ernst (1891-1976) and Henry Rousseau took great inspiration from the Prinzhorn Collection and from work by mentally ill patients. They also took inspiration from Freud and Jung – eminent psychoanalysts at the time, concerned – much like the Surrealists – by dreams and the subconscious (Gallery label, 2008). With inspiration derived from the mentally ill, and the subconscious, Avant-guard playwright Alfred Jarry declare it the antidote to convention (Rexer, 2005). 

Another more recent artist promoting the work of mentally ill people was Jean Dubuffet. According to The Tate Museum, Jean Dubuffet saw fine art as dominated by academic training. For him, ‘Art brut’ included graffiti, and the work of people with mental illness (among others) as a vision or emotions, outside of convention or academic artist interpretations. The art of the mentally ill inspired his own practise and he was considered a master to many during his time. He made a large collection of art brut, and promoted its study.

However, it may also be worth noting that ‘Brut’ or ‘Outsider Art’ today has little value other than the reading of it or what has been held as ‘good art’ by artists like Ernst and Debuffet of the establishment. Sales for Brut art or art produced by a person with bipolar of schizophrenia on a mainstream market place such as are very low, many pieces starting from just one pound and many looking not unlike a school child’s drawing attached to their parent’s fridge.  

A recent offering of Outsider art on


Art in all its guises has historically shed light on darkness for those with and without mental illness to see and relate to. But it has also stigmatised both artist and patient for example the picture titled The Rake’s Progress by Hogarth. For Van Gogh his art didn’t save him from the outlined suicide stats, though for artists working around severe mental today, such as Evans and Harding, it is said it can aid their recovery.

There is limited scientific evidence to associate creativity with mental illness, but there is also evidence on ebay and in books on Brut art that the art produced by mentally ill persons only sells or is of value if it’s been upheld by an established ‘art insider’.

As Evans notes in her Metro article (2017), being an artist doesn’t make her more creative or superior to artists without mental illness. However, what she goes on to conclude is that art and working with artistic expression does help her manage her own severe mental illness.

Art can also help people by expressing the very real human plight and suffering that can make any person feel less alone, as in Stuart’s (2018) assentation on The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).


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