EDWISE  - EDITOR AND EDUCATION CONSULTANT
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art and mental health

So glad I am able to post daily here. My posts were blocked for several months, probably because of some sort of hacking/ cyber-intrusion.

Topic today: art and mental health

I recently visited my former university campus to run an errand there. The visit prompted some reminiscing. One memory that comes up from time to time is my decision not to become an English major. Considering that creative writing and literature feeds mostly off emotions, I was a bit afraid of going in that direction when I was around 20. Coming from a family with some history of mental illness and guarding against becoming a victim of mental illness myself, I wanted to protect myself. Also, the stereotype of the writer or professor in deep, agonizing pain and becoming depressed or alcoholic accompanied the vision of a career in English literature. I did not want to get caught in the vortex.

It is a fact that I later encountered alcoholics and mentally unbalanced instructors and graduate students of the English department at that university in the flesh. I had returned for further study but had opted for social sciences. Employed in our TA and sessional instructor's union addressing cases of employee disputes with the university administration during that period as a grad student, I was struck by the reality that a number of my cases concerned several teaching staff members of the English department who had gotten into trouble. The context of their conflicts included mental health issues, such as depression and alcoholism. In fact, a co-worker organizing for this union who was a student and TA in the English department turned out to be alcoholic. The signs of his malady became obvious after sharing an office with him for a few months.

I still keep asking myself what the relationship is between the immersion in English literary studies, often combined with a budding career in creative writing, and the condition of an addiction or other mental health disorder. That the work in this field does involve exploring emotions and, usually, problems of humanity, often delving into tragic moments of history or family life. Many literature students and authors adopt the method of introspection. Perhaps that approach and the condition of digging through the effects and implications of tragedy puts one at risk of falling into melancholy.

Which comes first? Does the condition of mental illness including addiction tend to draw arts and humanities students into literature? Does the immersion in literature cause melancholy? Is it the institutional process and culture that makes people sick? 

Perhaps some people think that the authentic artist must be sad in the first place. It would seem to be considered a prerequisite. Many great artists have suffered acute tragic episodes in their own life--experiencing war, disappointment in love, disability, faulty parenting, crime, gender differentiation and such. Some are very well known as big drinkers, from Lowry to Hemingway, Margaret Lawrence to D. H. Laurence. Wolf was mentally ill. Some, but not all. The majority, I wonder? Has anyone done a survey of authors along this vein? 



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