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Navigating mental wellness in the creative arts

Creating art can take a toll on an individual’s emotional and mental health. Offering support and therapy helps

The Academy Award-nominated film, Maestro, underscores the complex relationship between creativity and the vulnerabilities of mental health.(IMDB)

By Divya Naik

LAST PUBLISHED 13.03.2024  |  08:00 AM IST

In the creative realm, producing a work of art—whether a song, painting, poem or novel—is no mundane job. It is, instead, a way of life that demands relentless pursuit of perfection, often at the expense of the creator’s mental well-being. The Academy Award-nominated film, Maestro, based on the life of composer and musician Leonard Bernstein, for instance, serves as a poignant example of the complex relationship between the brilliance of creativity and the vulnerabilities of mental health. This duality raises important questions about the nature of creativity itself: Is the ability to create intertwined with the capacity to feel deeply? If so, how does it affect the mental health of those gifted with this ability? 

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Bengaluru-based artist Nandita (she prefers using a mononym), 32, found her vulnerabilities creeping in every time her art met with rejection from galleries. Her vibrant canvases hid her struggles with anxiety, which only intensified with each perceived failure. “Every painting tells my story, the ups and downs. When galleries said no, it hurt. It felt like they didn’t get what I was feeling," she reveals. 

The paradox of artistry
In a poignant scene in Maestro, Felicia Montealegre, Bernstein’s wife tells him during a depressive episode, “If the summer doesn’t sing in you, then nothing sings in you. And if nothing sings in you, then you can’t make music." Clearly, whether it’s an icon like Bernstein or an up-and-coming artist like Nandita, the intertwining of creativity and mental health is a narrative rich with paradoxes.

“Creativity demands an openness to experiencing emotions in a raw and unfiltered way," says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Dr Amit Malik, emphasising the psychological toll this can take. This openness, while a boon for creativity, can also make individuals more susceptible to mental health disorders, he observes. The creative brain, with its heightened sensitivity and empathy, can experience the world in ways that is both enriching and overwhelming. 

According to Hansika Kapoor, a research psychologist in Mumbai, the creative process is inherently introspective, inviting artists to delve into their personal, and at times painful, experiences. Nandita agrees with Kapoor when she says that there is a deep connection between emotions, creativity and mental health. “As someone who has always felt things deeply, whether it’s joy, sadness or anything in between, I find this intensity flowing into my paintings," says Nandita. 

 ‘Tortured Artist’ stereotype
 The expectation that true art stems from personal anguish perpetuates a cycle of suffering that many artists find difficult to escape. Experts in psychology and mental healthcare argue that the pressures associated with living up to the ‘tortured artist’ stereotype can exacerbate underlying mental health issues. 

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 “Believing that pain fuels creativity can trap artists in a cycle of suffering, mistakenly thinking it’s their only path to genuine work," cautions Shruti Puri, a clinical psychologist at Karma Center for Counselling and Well-being in Delhi. Liam, 27, a Mumbai-based musician debunks the tortured artist myth. Calling it a dangerous idea, he says, “I’ve had my share of ups and downs, but to say that my best work comes from my darkest times oversimplifies the creative process."

The need of the hour, Kapoor asserts, is for the creative industry to foster an environment where mental health is openly discussed, and signs of distress addressed without stigma. Early intervention can significantly alter the course of a mental health condition. And yet, too often, symptoms are ignored until they reach breaking point. Kapoor advocates for regular mental health check-ins, much like one would have routine physical health assessments.

For Nandita, starting therapy helped her find new ways to channel her emotions into her paintings. “Therapy gave me tools not just to cope with rejection but to understand that it doesn’t define me or my art. It has allowed me to create with more freedom and less fear," she says. Liam adds that sharing his feelings in a safe space lent him a new perspective that he’s started weaving into his compositions. “It’s not just about battling depression; it’s about understanding it and growing from it," he says about his key takeaway from therapy. 

Managing mental health
Effective mental health management for creative professionals should involve a combination of personal, social, and professional support structures.  “Access to mental health resources, community support and a culture of openness can transform the creative landscape," Malik emphasises. He highlights the importance of mindfulness and meditation in enhancing creativity while managing stress, suggesting that “mindfulness practices can help creatives maintain a balanced mental state, fostering a healthier approach to their work."

Puri stresses the importance of personal self-care practices, advocating for regular self-reflection and mindfulness exercises to help creatives stay grounded. “Creating art is an act of vulnerability and courage," she says, “and by supporting the mental health of creative individuals, we not only enrich their lives but also the cultural tapestry they contribute to."

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based journalist and writer.

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