The Tortured Artist: Myth Or Reality?

Having a mental illness isn't the prerequisite for becoming a creative genius. Here's why.

Words by Susan E. Jean

The image of the ‘tortured artist’ is a familiar characterisation that asserts that the most creative among us are bound to be touched by mental affliction. It is a stereotype often romanticised in western society as the only way to authentically achieve great works of art. Ironically, mental illness is also considered to be one of the most highly stigmatised conditions today; where individuals are labelled as unstable, incompetent or crazy and subject to oppression intensified through the media and colloquial language. Unlike mental health and well-being, which concerns all people, mental illness is broadly defined as, “diagnosable psychological disorders that are characterised by dysregulation of mood, thought and/or behaviour.” Some of the most prominent people in fashion, such as Cara Delevingne, Alexander McQueen and most recently, Kate Spade, have been gripped by mental illness with the latter two tragically resulting in death.

Even researchers concede that there is a strong association between mental illness and creativity with studies reporting that people working in the creative industries are three times as likely to suffer from diagnosable mental health issues than the general public.

There are a myriad of mental illnesses defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). However, the most commonly diagnosed disorders among people in the creative industries are depression, which is experienced by about 32% of the workforce, and anxiety disorders, which accounts for about 36% of the workforce. While there are links between mental illness and creativity, the structure of creative organisations today also contributes to the development of mental breakdowns. Factors such as long and irregular working hours, low financial rewards, perceived lack of value placed on creative work, and the internal and external pressures to reach high standards, are the most commonly disclosed.

Disclaimer: Images may seem frank and be of sensitive nature to some readers. They are the artist's impression of her lived experience of anxiety when trying to turn off the world's noise to stop for a moment of silence. This series explores the transition of emotions from anxiety to peace that she experienced while being in complete silence.

Sierra Pruitt Image by Sierra Pruitt,
Sierra Pruitt Image by Sierra Pruitt,

The experience of having a mental illness in the workplace is debilitating and has substantial barriers to having a productive and fulfilling working life. In an organisational study that looked at the task performance and at-work productivity of employees with mental illnesses, individuals reported difficulty in controlling their anxiety and emotions at work. These employees scored lower on objective job performance evaluations than their peers. Additionally, in a focus group researching employees diagnosed with depression or anxiety, they expressed that their mental illness caused discrepancies between their desired performance and actual performance that resulted in withdrawal and increased sickness absences when not resolved. Nearly all of the people interviewed believed that their mental illness had cost them previous job opportunities. They felt their display of symptoms, such as poor concentration, low confidence, negative self-perceptions, and poor communication skills led to a minimisation of financial support, lack of daily routine and decline in their general sense of well-being. Overall, these employees experienced lower job satisfaction and had a negative outlook on their prospects of career progression.

Sierra Pruitt Image by Sierra Pruitt,
Sierra Pruitt Image by Sierra Pruitt,

I often find myself thinking about the complexities of the fashion industry. On the one hand, it is a place where creativity thrives and ideas are transformed into three-dimensional forms that are worn and enjoyed by others. At the same time, the fashion industry imposes unrealistic expectations on the people who work in it. While many may say that it is the nature of this fast-paced industry to be highly pressurised, there are too many accounts of people who are stressed, overworked and battling mental illness — and struggle to admit it due to the shame our society tends to impose on those who ask for help. In the recent wake of Kate Spade’s suicide and the revelation that she too struggled with depression, it's imperative that we go beyond the usual platitudes of being ‘aware’ and start to make real and lasting changes.

The reality is, a lot of fashion companies are small, with limited budgets and the lack of time, knowledge and resource to structure adequate support for people with mental health conditions.

Sierra Pruitt Image by Sierra Pruitt,

The good news is, there are free and low-cost training courses for individuals and workplaces administered by Mind, a mental health charity. They provide mental health awareness training and how to manage and support mental health at work. Additionally, the UK government contributes financial help to employees through a scheme called Access to Work, to help cover the costs of practical support in the workplace. In large organisations, the implementation of mental health prevention programs has been a positive resource for both the employees and the organisations as a whole. Research shows that employees who have access to treatment and psychological services experience an increase in work productivity as well as their personal well-being.

As an employer, it is also useful to engage in preventative measures by assessing the triggers at work that contribute to the onset of mental illness. Looking at how workloads are managed and working towards establishing processes that increase efficiency while minimising stress and the need to work consistently long hours are a good place to start. If you are an employee, you can position yourself as an ally by giving emotional support to your colleagues with mental health issues and speaking up if you see injustices occurring. In the creative industries, it is people who generate ideas and create work that connects to others and makes an impact. By taking the steps to create a healthy working environment for everyone, we can help create lasting positive change that will help shape our workplaces now and for future generations.

In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 (or email [email protected]). In the US, please contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-8255.

Sierra Pruitt Image by Sierra Pruitt,

Further Reading:

Mind: The Mental Health Charity
UK NHS: How to Access Mental Health Services
Befrienders Worldwide


Written by Susan E. Jean Photographer Model Agency Designer Make Up Assistant

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