Dave's Progress. Chapter 110: The Poet and the Psychiatrist.

One of the first questions I asked when coming into mental health services was, if there is no such thing as "normal", why is anyone locked away in a psychiatric institution? It is only the concept of apparent "normality" which results in its binary opposite, "madness". So, despite the protests of those in practice who continually suggested to me that there was no such thing as "normal", I could not get over the fact, and the glaring contradiction, that psychiatric services would want us all to lead a "normal" life. It also seemed to me that creative people, often a little eccentric in their ways, may come into conflict with mental health services simply because of the way they are. What would happen, I wondered, were, for example, William Blake to walk through the door of my local residential unit, a man so fuelled by imagination that, in his writings, he seemed to create an entire world. Would it be possible that the "normalising" processes of psychiatric practice may harm, damage or even destroy such a person's talent?
William Blake, Visionary Poet.
In two recent articles these questions were approached. In the first, "Poetry, the creative process and mental illness", by Alex Hudson (BBC News), it was shown that in a recent study by psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison, poets were 20 times more likely to end up in an asylum than the general population. The study took the incidence of mood disorder, suicide and institutionalisation among major British and Irish poets between 1600 and 1800 as its basis. Even Wordsworth, to return to Blake for a second, is said to have remarked, on the latter's passing, "Alas, he was mad, the poor fellow." Furthermore, the article suggested that other studies had found that brain patterns in artists at work were similar to those of "schizophrenics" and that creative graduates share more personality traits with bipolar patients than less creative ones.
Could it be, then, that the mind of the creative person and the institution of psychiatry inevitably clash? Is creativity itself in opposition to the processes of mental health practice? The article quotes psychologist Gary Fitzgibbon, who says, "creativity is certainly about not being constrained by rules or accepting the restrictions society places on us". In my experience, and in contrast to this, psychiatric practice seems to be all about getting people to adhere to rules and making them behave in socially accepted ways. Is it any wonder, then, that creative people, who perhaps break with conformity, are more likely to end up being treated for some mental disorder? Indeed, Fitzgibbon goes on to say, "of course the more people break the rules, the more likely they are to be perceived as mentally ill."
Like a lot of people, I felt, in my own experience of being treated for a mental illness, that some of my creativity had been lost in the process. Also like a lot of people, I somewhat resented that treatment upon its initiation. Coming down from an episode of illness was almost like coming down from some kind of not altogether unpleasant drug, and I often felt that some important part of myself was being annihilated. The phrase "don't take away my demons because you'll take away my angels too", which I used as a title for one of my blogs in which I described this process, often came to my mind. Indeed, the poet Luke Wright suggests in the article that " a lot of creativity comes from a conflict somewhere in your mind". In its worst form, perhaps psychiatry can iron out such conflict, destroy creativity, serving only to pacify, sedate or render conforming.
I understand that modern psychiatric practice would attempt to avoid such things, but in a second article, Diana Rose, co-director of the Service User Research Enterprise (SURE) at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, suggests that "normalisation" is still  a process at work today and that it is a source of stigma to many service users. She states:
"...we are often seen as a bundle of deficits: cognitive deficits, emotional deficits and behavioural deficits. These, according to mental health professionals are to be "corrected" with rehabilitation techniques which will normalise the person...this can make the recipient of these techniques feel completely inadequate. We are in need of "correction"."
So, the process of normalisation would still appear to be in use, and it just might be possible, that in "correcting" our deficits, psychiatry also unwittingly dallies with that which need not be a "deficit", but resolutely a positive attribute.
But, whatever I may think, the question of what is "normal" is going to remain a vexed one for psychiatry and one which it cannot any longer avoid with simple platitudes. It seems, also, that care must be taken to avoid dismantling, instead of building on, the creative talents of service users.
Anyway, as an aside from all this mental health talk, I thought I would just print a random picture of a Koala Bear here, just to demonstrate that, at last, I have got to grips with putting pictures into my blog.
The Lovable, Cuddly Koala Bear.
 See you next time.


dcrelief said…
Dear David,
Blake and Fitzbubble have nothing on me if creativity is an indicator of mental illness. Actually it's comforting to understand the possible reasons I have rhymes in my head.

Seriously I thought to be a product of early childhood cartoon viewing. A most diffficult task to grow up and "assume normalcy" upon giving up cartoons. But adult normal now became "the normal."

Well, I think I've lost track of my comment... and it should have been Fitzgibbon. A very interesting article, David.

Congratulations on the photo load-in. Take care, Dixie
David said…
Dear Dixie,
I don't think that creativity is an "indicator of mental illness". Rather, I was tring to say that psychiatric services may sometimes confuse the two. The stats would seem to indicate that somehow, the more creative are more likely to be treated for a mental disorder, but I think this may be a result of what is perceived to be "normal" and what not.
Anyway, I know that Blake and "Fitzbubble" have nothing on you!
Wishing you all the best,
bazza said…
Hi David. I think that the point about 'normalcy' is that it's socially constructed. In any age certain people or groups define what is normal according to the criteria of what is fashionable.
At one point in time on Earth a man may be imprisioned as 'mad' because he disagrees with some totalitarian regime while in another place he may be 'mad' if he does not conform with social mores.
Nice koala!
Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’
David, I think the word 'normal' is overrated. There are none of us truly normal - we all have our little discrepancies with that labeling word, 'normal'. We are all uniquely different, none of us the same.

A couple of years ago, my mother posted her thoughts about mental disorders and creativity. It was on her journal blog - I'll repost it.

Many famous individuals - scholars, poets, artists - were diagnosed with mental illness. But their creative works are admired world-wide. Perhaps, what was discerned as mental dysfunction, was actually their own portal to creativity.

Great work on this, David.

David said…
Dear bazza,
I'm sure you are right in what you say, and notions of what is "mad" and what is normal have perhaps changed throughout history.
But, yes, it is a nice koala!
Thanks, bazza.
Best wishes to you,
David said…
Dear Mattie,
Yes, many creative people seem to have been labelled as having some form of mental disorder, and, as I say in my post, perhaps it is that such minds simply are in conflict with the "normalising" process of psychiatric practice.
Watching a documentary only last night, I discovered that the great, possibly the greatest ever, British painter, J.M.W. Turner, was regarded by some as being "mad" in his own time because of his revolutionary impressionistic style. There was also a history opf mental disorder in his family and his mother apparently died whilst in Bedlam.
But, as you say, those who were once regarded as such are now admired the world over and are seen as geniuses. Perhaps, then, such artists are simply ahead of their time, and by being "different" and breaking with convention, come to be labelled "mad".
Thanks for your interest, Mattie.
Wishing you all the best,
klahanie said…
Dear David,
Apologies for the delay in my commenting. You can breathe a sigh of relief.
Another fascinating posting and I can most definitely relate to where you are coming from in this.
I felt that any of my alleged creativity was being suppressed within the mental health system. Have no idea what normal is, but I like to think that my 'eccentric' tendencies, not restrained because they might be deemed, 'out of the norm', have been a very positive thing in my life.
Anyway, cute koala and glad to see you are getting to grips with this photo thingy on blogger.
Very kind wishes, Gary.
David said…
Hello my eccentric, hirsute, creative friend. I am sure that your own little foibles have been very much a positive in your own life, and I, for one, wouldn't want to change that. I hope you stay as creative, eccentric and hairy as you've always been.
With Very Best Wishes,
The Manic Chef said…
Greetings again Dave, I'm catching up on my reading, finally! This was a most thought provoking entry for me. I have found myself in the same quandary,(I hope that is the correct usage of this word). Since I'm just a 'toddler' in the mental health issues, and going through therapy for various abuses. I have found it rather confusing, when told, "what is normal"? Well... for me, I do have a view what normal is,or what I perceive normal should be, and in some ways, would like to be normal. But, on the other hand I totally agree with and understand your line of thought. Talk about being a walking contradiction....oy, how I suffer...I guess I'm NOT normal, oh MY! I guess one would think normal is related to being accepted and acceptance, both in giving and receiving...hmmm does this make sense? Must think about this. Anyway I'm getting lost here, HELP! I thank you for this well written expression of thought, and I must say it is something I must reflect upon. Thank you for the inspiration to think upon this. Later....
David said…
Dear Manic Chef,
I'm glad that this post has made you ponder. And, I agree, that "normal" can be associated with acceptance and being accepted. If we are seen as "not normal" I guess we are more likely to be ostracised or labelled "mad". I just find that notions of "normality" in psychiatric practice may be too stringent sometimes, and so what is sometimes just personality, or "creativity", can be construed as some kind of pathology.
I hope that modern psychiatry allows us our little foibles, but some diagnoses have me worried. I saw a programme recently which said that some children in the States were being diagnosed with "oppositional defiance disorder". What exactly does that mean? Does that mean if you are a little defiant and don't do exactly as you are told all the time that you have an illness? Somehow, I don't think so.
If you want more food for thought, perhaps read Thomas Szasz's "The Myth of Mental Illness", in which he argues that most mental illnesses are just society's "creation", designed to control and supress that which we find difficult or problematic. Whilst I do not agree with him that mental illness is some kind of "myth", and think that mental illnesses are real, it is nonetheless an interesting argument which still has some resonance.
Thanks for your interest and hope you stay well,

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