Robin Williams’ suicide this past week has brought forward some commentators who are linking his creative genius to his mental illness. While we can’t say for certain whether his creativity was due, at least in part, to his mental illness, we can say this — there is a lot less of a link between these two things than most people think.
We should remember Robin Williams and attribute his creativity to where it probably best belongs — to a personality, intelligence and insight into the human condition that few people have.
And we should put to rest the myth that in order to be a creative genius, one must also be mentally ill.
Scott Barry Kaufman, writing over at Scientific American reminds us:
Here’s the thing: Williams’ comedic genius was a result of many factors, including his compassion, playfulness, divergent thinking, imagination, intelligence, affective repertoire, and unique life experiences.
In contrast, his suicide was strongly influenced by his mental illness.
This romanticism of mental illness needs to stop.
He cites his own previous article that takes an in-depth look at the links between mental illness and creativity. It shows that, with few exceptions, there is little relationship between the two.
But his review of one particular study did find something interesting:
What was striking, however, was that the siblings of patients with autism and the first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia nervosa were significantly overrepresented in creative professions. Could it be that the relatives inherited a watered-down version of the mental illness conducive to creativity while avoiding the aspects that are debilitating?
The latest research suggests that mental illness may be most conductive to creativity indirectly, by enabling the relatives of those inflicted to open their mental flood gates but maintain the protective factors necessary to steer the chaotic, potentially creative storm.
I think it’s important to note this, since we too often romanticize mental illness and creativity. We look to examples like Vincent van Gogh, and marvel at his beautiful, sometimes-haunting paintings. We think, “Wow, it takes someone a little crazy to paint so well.” But van Gogh and others like him are more often the exception than the rule.
We don’t know how “crazy” Robin Williams truly was, although we do know he has had an off-and-on battle with alcoholism in his life. Some people have said he was being treated for severe depression, although Williams himself previously denied ever having clinical depression.
But I disagree with Kaufman’s conclusion that zero percent of Williams’ mental illness contributed to his creativity.
After all, we are the result of all that we live and experience. Mental illness has the ability to contribute, not just take away, from our lives. Look at the countless numbers of people who have found strength and support in their battle with an illness… And doing great things because of it (not in spite of it).
Robin Williams was a beautiful, talented individual. His gifts to the world will be sorely missed, regardless of exactly where they came from.