Art And Mental Health

I’ve been opening up more lately about my past struggles with mental health, because it’s difficult to fully express what my work is about, and how deeply art has been part of this recovery, without sharing what I’ve been through.

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In 2013, about eight years after my first episode, I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. For me, this manifested in rapid cycling (extreme highs and lows over the course of a few hours or days), and three to four major episodes a year. These larger episodes began with several days of hypomania, followed by a deep depression that lasted about a month.

In some ways, it feels ill fitting to use my diagnosis now, because I have been stable for over five years. It turns out that I have two variants on my MTHFR gene that significantly impact my body's ability to produce and regulate neurotransmitters, and taking l-methylfolate, a methylated form of B12, NAC, and a few other supplements has completely changed my life.

The most significant aspect of my recovery is that I don’t get stuck in an emotion anymore. Depression is a habit our brain forms, and when we’re depressed, our brain puts negative thought patterns on repeat. Depression used to be a place were I would get trapped for weeks on end. Now, when I have a bad day, it’s just that - a day. The self care I perform has an impact that it couldn’t possibly have had before, because my body simply wasn’t getting the things it needs.

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An artist struggling with their mental health is a familiar story. It’s tragic and it’s romanticized to the point that people think mental illness inherently makes people more creative. I disagree.

When I was in the throws of my illness, I was not making art. Being mentally ill did not make me more creative, all it did was make it difficult for me to perform and prioritize basic tasks. It made it hard to get up in the morning, take a shower, and leave the house. It made it hard to sleep normal hours and stay awake throughout the day. It made it hard to socialize. It made it hard to commit myself to a schedule and follow through on the things I wanted to do, including making art. There is nothing sexy or fun about being that sick.

I don’t know a single artist who hasn’t struggled with their mental health to some degree, but I also don’t believe that creativity and mental illness are linked in the way people think. Here’s my take: art is a brilliant and effective coping mechanism for people who are struggling with their mental health, and living with a mental illness requires a kind of bravery and fortitude that lends itself well to making and sharing art. I believe that my creativity was born out of my resilience, not my illness.

When I’m not making art, I can feel depression nipping at my heals. The air goes hollow and I lose my sense of purpose. Creativity is a critical part of my self care, and for this reason, my definition of success involves showing up and painting nearly every day. Research backs this up: even if you aren’t an artist, just 45 minutes of creative activity can significantly reduce stress in the body. Making art is good for you!

I hope that by sharing my story, I can help to dispel some of the shame and stigma surrounding mental illness, and rewrite the toxic ideas we have about “the crazy artist”. Before my diagnosis, I thought that I wasn’t crazy enough to be an artist, but now I know the opposite to be true. I couldn’t be living this beautiful life and pursuing a career in the arts if I had not gotten my mental health under control.

PersonalJeffrey Arlyn