When it happened, I did not want to be one of the millions of journalists writing about the tragic death of comedian Robin Williams. I wanted no part of the relentless armchair quarterbacking of commentators who so easily claimed to have the man, “figured out.” No one knew what was in his head or heart and pretending to in order to secure 15 seconds of publicity on the morning talk shows is disrespectful on countless levels.
As a kid, “Mork & Mindy” was a favorite television show of mine. Naturally, I was too young to understand that Williams’ extra-terrestrial comic genius may have originated from a man with deep, emotional fragility in a constant struggle with personal demons. However, Williams’ death led to interesting dialogue about whether brilliantly creative people have a higher tendency toward mental illness.
Psychologists have long debated the relationship between the creative mind and various mental illnesses, particularly bipolar disorder. Personally, I reject the psychobabble that suggests creative people innately suffer from a myriad of mental and emotional disorders.
I’m not a psychiatrist or a physician but I am one of those creative people, albeit that I walk the line to the other side of the brain as well. I can rebuild an engine, write this article, and produce a television segment, all in the same day. But am I, by nature, mentally ill?
Benjamin Franklin was one of the most creative and inventive people in American history. He was a statesman, a writer and an inventor, and there is no evidence to suggest he had any sort of mental illness.
But in today’s era of mass publicity, there are other pressures that can affect the creative mind’s health besides that to produce new work. Anyone who becomes successful or is thrust into the public eye at any level has an entirely different set of stresses to deal with.
From my own, small experience, I can tell you first-hand that, as a public figure, you are expected to be “on” all the time. Because of your public work, people believe they know “you,” and anticipate you to behave a certain way to meet their expectation.
When you don’t, they are disappointed and react negatively. The pressure of not being able to meet those expectations can take a toll on someone who already suffers from self-doubt, depression and other areas where a negative personal image is already prevalent.
Most creative people are in the business they love in order to do a good job at work then go about their lives as normally as possible. Often, however, the public won’t allow it.
Williams’ death serves as a reminder that every creative person is just that, an individual, whether working from their garage or signing million-dollar movie deals. Every day they struggle with the same concerns as you and I, it’s just that the scope of view might be a bit larger or different.
Has anyone considered the possibility that people who already have mental illnesses choose to go into a more creative line of work because it fits their “disability?” It’s no secret that actors and writers tend to be introverted, keep to themselves and often reject the idea of the 9 to 5 job and even general social conformity. Since mental illness isn’t something a person just contracts, like the flu; it’s logical to conclude that it’s got to be in the genetics somewhere waiting for a trigger. Depression and other illnesses can also be affected by the lifestyle of the individual through alcohol and drug use, exacerbating the problem.
Therefore, it is entirely likely that those with mental issues actually choose the more fluid existence of the creative lifestyle early on. The common absence of structure and responsibility probably plays well into their ever fluctuating mental state.
In other words, it’s a chicken or the egg problem. Are creative people mentally ill (as a generalization), or do the mentally ill choose the more creative path? A great talent was lost in Robin Williams and he was by no means the first. Sadly, regardless of how it comes about, it is unlikely he will be the last.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and contributor to WDTN-TV2’s Living Dayton program.