Saturday, August 20, 2011

On Madness and Creativity

We all know the clichés, that there’s a thin line between love and hate, pain and pleasure, madness and creativity. Well, I suppose they’re all true. In particular, I feel that being a self-proclaimed “creative,” means one walks the line between madness and genius far too closely.

Today, I watched two TED videos that brought home this idea for me. In one, Joshua Walters a performer and stand up comic talked about what it was like to live with manic depression and the effect it had on his creative life. In another, JD Schramm talked about what it was like to have survived a suicide attempt. The two topics were not wholly unrelated.

When Walters was first diagnosed with the condition, he was committed to a psych ward for a time. There, he realized that many of his fellow patients were no different from performers rehearsing for a role. His point was that there was a spectrum between madness and genius and that more space should be made in society for people further along on the madness spectrum.

What he didn’t mention is that the other side of the mania is the crash. The depression that can take over one’s life and colour everything in it a darker shade of blue. While depression can happen to anyone, I would not be surprised if it turned out that more people who are dubbed creative or sensitive have higher rates of suicide and suicidal attempts. And I suppose that’s where the other video comes in.

JD Schramm was advocating that more resources be available to those who have attempted to take their own lives and failed. Himself a suicide survivor, JD noted that the silence that greets most suicide survivors is likely to make them try again. And 37% of those who attempt to kill themselves again will succeed.

Here in Nigeria, creatives must work much harder to stay true to their art. Many of them are already dealing with pressure from families and society to find “real jobs” or give up their “hobbies.” Many make painful financial and emotional sacrifices to do what they do. I’m not saying that creative people in Nigeria are more prone to suicide. What I’m saying is that those who are already fragile must walk the line between life and death after already having to struggle to practice their craft and in the culturally enforced silence that surrounds the subject of suicide.

We often hear that Nigerians don’t commit suicide. Like homosexuality, it doesn’t seem to exist. Well, we all know that isn’t true. What is true is that we don’t talk about it. When we do hear stories of suicide, the victims are portrayed as wicked or selfish, or worse, weak. There are few resources to help those struggling with suicidal impulses and little incentive for those who need it to seek it out.

Now, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except to advocate for more emotional support for those in the creative arts. I realize I might be pandering to stereotypes, but for someone who lives more in the darkness that is depression than the light of mania, I know it can be tough going. Every time a suicide survivor makes it through a difficult day without giving in to the urge to end it all – no matter how fleeting the urge – is something to celebrate.  And whether our society privileges it or not, creative people bring a lot to the table, enriching our culture in ways we may never fully appreciate. So it’s in all our best interest if we can take advantage of the unique energy that comes with the mania while at the same time controlling the dark spiral that comes with the depression. 


  1. I love this post. Nigeria is still a narrow-minded country that closes its eyes to a lot of things. I love that country but we live in a lot of self deceit. Like you said, homosexuality, being different, depression. These things are not publicly acknowledged. If you're different - you're considered unserious. If you're depressed - you're mad or just generally ignored. Oh well... we can always change things in that country with more and more people like you.

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  2. Thanks for the link! I think Nigeria is (slowly) coming to its own. We still have a very long way to go, but we are becoming more tolerant of difference than we used to be. I hope that in a few generations, this will be an archaic conversation.