A Beautiful Mind: The Creative Potential of Mental Illness

Story By
Grace McMillan

I met Roger on a hot day in Jakarta.  He is an expat living in Indonesia. We exchanged greetings and chatted a bit. When we broached the topic of hobbies, he mentioned that he enjoys jazz and art.  There was our connection.

Eventually, I got around to hearing and seeing some of his work.  Simply incredible!  He shows bold-faced, groundbreaking expression of raw talent for color and music.

Now for the twist: the cradle of Roger’s creativity is typically considered a handicap. He has lived with mood and mental disorders for years.

Schizophrenia, autism, manic depression, bipolar and mood disorders are all terms used for those born with the mental instinct to dabble in worlds that don’t really exist.  Their imaginations are both their creative playground and their lifelong demon.

Channeling the Brainstorm
Consider what life is like for a person who can’t keep their imagination from running wild.  Their lives are an ever-turning kaleidoscope of changing moods and memories.  The constant wrestling match to keep making sense of it all is endured in equal measure by their loved ones.  

The demands of daily life do not mix well with mental instability.  However, the right environment changes everything.  Where might that be?

The arts, math and sciences are the autobahn where the brain can throttle its engine and horsepower.  These disciplines offer limitless routes of exploration – perfect for the beautiful mind.  Not everyone with mental problems is stable enough to control their ride. But for those that do, the performance is matchless.

Roger Wetherholt is blessed with enough stiches to keep it together.  Even so, he admits, “My thoughts race all the time.  I’ve learned to channel the energy into music, art and business.”  I will add that he is also gifted with numbers, culinary skills and many other hidden talents.  He performs above par because he embraces his condition.

Examples of Crazy Creativity
The list of outstandingly creative people with mental or mood disorders is a long one.  Pablo Picasso lived with mental illness.  Yet, he revolutionized how structure is expressed.  His conscious mind chopped images into panes that lived in conflict or harmony depending on your interpretation.  

Michelangelo, meanwhile, suffered from mood disorders.  He would throw himself into one piece of art sometimes for days on end, and some would later call him obsessive-compulsive. He was known for having little patience for those who were too dull to see his vision. 

Robert Schumann is credited with broad strokes of music composition.  His works ranged from simplistic open vistas like ‘Träumerei’ to passionate outpourings of the heart.  He succumbed to death at a mental asylum.  Despite his mental swings, he contributed to music in unique ways.

There are repeated examples of people with both mental disorders and fantastic achievements.  Logically, many people conclude that genius and loco often tango.

Assumptions about the Creative
There are many assumptions about mental creativity. Backed by Einstein and his iconic electrocuted hairdo, most consider eccentricity a prerequisite of genius. Entertainment portrays the mad scientist as, well, mad, while labeling the smart ones “nerds” or “geeks”.  These are only stereotypes.  Creativity is not always a case of mental illness, high IQ, poor EQ and social awkwardness.  Some people simply learn to mine their strengths while others do not.  

Another assumption is that drugs and alcohol stimulate mental creativity.  Is that why “stable-minded” people dip into the well of thought-altering substances?  In the 1800s, artists in Europe including Van Gogh drank a potent herbed spirit called absinthe.  A few glasses of the stuff would make one dreamy, but as for creative, well… Many people with neither talent nor mental disorders would drink just to look the part, while those with the goods enjoyed working while inebriated. I guess little has changed. 

No Bed of Roses
Despite the creative potential of the altered brain, nature has a balancing tool: yin, creativity and yang, instability. While the world may marvel at the achievements produced by passionate mood swings, they often come at the cost of mental health. For the mentally ill, periodic creativity is the light at the end of a very long tunnel.  It is no picnic to travel through worm holes between high and low moods.  It is a burden and an illness.  

For those who courageously battle unstable thinking patterns to create outside of the box, know that the world admires your work, envies your abilities, and respects your heroic spirit.  The world owes a debt of gratitude to those with beautiful minds.

Blurbs: Hollywood Raises Awareness
Little Man Tate
 – A story about a fourth-grade child prodigy who can solve the most complex mathematical problems and play Rachmaninoff but cannot figure out how to fit in at public school.  Determined to create a niche for her son, his mother sends him to a camp for child geniuses called ‘Odyssey of the Mind’.  This creates a rift between them that is only solved when genius is not put under a microscope. 

The Soloist – The true life story of Nathaniel Ayers, an African-American who excelled at cello and Beethoven.  Although hugely talented, Nathaniel’s battle with mental illness sees him lose his home, playing a two-string violin on Los Angeles skid row for pennies. His talent is discovered by a journalist who embarks on a quest to help him.  As Nathaniel’s life spins out of control, the journalist gains respect for him while also learning more about himself.

A Beautiful Mind – Another true story about famed mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. Nash spent years living with undiagnosed schizophrenia, all the while making significant strides in mathematical theory.  Gradually, he learns that the characters he knew most of his life were only figments of his imagination.  He seeks help to get his illness under control and finally wins the Nobel Prize. 

image by
MICHAEL ZHANG
michaelzhangdesign.com