From JK Rowling to George Michael: creative people and their struggles with anxiety

George Michael. Picture: Getty
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WITH every day comes another story of an artist and mental illness. Take JK Rowling. The Edinburgh author’s first post-Potter novel, The Casual Vacancy, is just out and features a character with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Promoting the book on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme last week, Rowling said: “I’ve certainly had mental health issues, I’ve been depressed; in my teenage years I had issues with anxiety.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Fry has been starring in the Globe Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night, his first stage appearance since 1995. That was when he walked out of Simon Gray’s Cell Mates, vanishing from sight and contemplating suicide. He later told the world about his bipolar disorder and presented a documentary called Stephen Fry: Secret Life of the Manic Depressive.

Likewise, when George Michael cancelled his Australian tour at the weekend, the singer said it was because of the “major anxiety” he has been suffering since surviving a near-fatal illness last year. Rather than resting and receiving post-traumatic counselling, as his doctors had advised, he tried to get through his problems by making music and working hard. “Unfortunately I seriously under-estimated how difficult this year would be,” he said.

Back at home, the Dundee-born poet Don Paterson even managed to bring mental illness into his recent broadside against the beleaguered funding body Creative Scotland. In a chapter to be included in the forthcoming anthology Writers on Scottish Independence, Paterson points out that “artists have the highest rate of mental illness among the professional classes”. He suggests that “highly creative and divergent thought-patterns” are less a wondrous gift than a medical condition. For a funding body to encourage creativity, goes his argument, is like it being a cheerleader for mental illness.

All of which makes this year’s Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival seem especially topical. The nationwide event, which runs for most of this month, seeks to take the stigma out of mental illness with a programme of film, exhibitions, theatre, music and comedy and, importantly, discussions around the events.

“Everyone connects to the arts,” says festival director Lee Knifton. “When you talk about art, it breaks things down a bit. People talk from a more honest perspective. You’re taking about something you’ve seen, you’re not talking about the issue.”

A case in point is Serious Drugs, a documentary about the cult Bellshill indie band BMX Bandits. It was filmed by Jim Burns, who had sought solace in the band’s music at a time when he was “emotionally numb” with depression. He correctly guessed that songwriter Duglas T Stewart had experienced mental ill health himself. Indeed, the 1991 song that gives the film its name was inspired by a girlfriend who told Stewart he should be on stronger anti­depressants: “If you want your head rearranged, get some serious drugs.”

For his part, Stewart is delighted by the film and will be present at the screening at Edinburgh’s Filmhouse on 9 October. “It’s a really beautiful film – a pure-hearted gift that Jim’s made,” he says.

The musician has a lot of time, too, for Paterson’s analysis of the creative process. He knows first-hand that the darkest episodes can generate the most illuminating art. “The philosopher Friedrich Schiller said we’ve all got a gatekeeper to our creativity and our minds. Normal people come up with thoughts that aren’t regarded as acceptable and that gatekeeper stops them from going any further. But for the creative person – in the case of someone like Daniel Johnston, Vincent Van Gogh or Brian Wilson – the gatekeeper isn’t there. In other cases, we find a way of either sneaking past or killing that gatekeeper.

“Sometimes, unfortunately, there’s a price when we kill the gatekeeper. As well as creating a mind where creativity can flourish, it creates a mind where our own madnesses can grow unchecked. In my own case, when I’m in a dark place and being haunted by my own personal demons or the inner voices are filling me with self-loathing and self-doubt, it is horrible.

“At the same time, if somebody told me I could turn it all off but the price would be I’d never write another song, then the ego of the artist would go, ‘Well, my sanity is not as important as another song.’ One would prefer if one didn’t have to pay that price, but if that’s what the deal is … It’s the whole ‘devil at the crossroads’ analogy.”

It would be faulty logic, however, to deduce that to be an artist you have to have experienced mental illness. Neither is it true to say that anyone who is mentally ill can automatically tap into reserves of creative energy.

“There are people who seem perfectly able to be creative and very well adjusted,” says Stewart. “If you think about Paul McCartney or Carole King, I don’t know them, but it seems like they are sane human beings, able to function not just as artists but as human beings. They have good family life and all of that, but undeniably they are two of the most important pop writers of the 20th century.”

What matters to Stewart is to be involved with a festival that lets people know they are not alone. “I’m of an age when I can see what a big difference it has made regarding sexuality with people saying, ‘This is the way I am,’” says the singer. “We need more musicians, artists, TV presenters and film stars who are prepared to say, ‘This is part of who I am, but look, I’m doing something very positive and you can too, so don’t be defeated by it.’”

It is this sense of shared experience, and the implicit empathy for others, that governs the theme of this year’s festival. Many of the events ask audiences to “walk in my shoes”, to see life from another perspective, and to drop the fear and prejudice. “Because we’re getting upwards of 16,000 people every year, it’s the largest anti-stigma event in the world,” says Dr Peter Byrne, a consultant psychiatrist who helped set up the festival in 2007. “If you mix the general public with people with mental health problems, it’s a win-win, because the general public realise it isn’t all axe murderers and people weeping, and on the other side, people are getting out and about and increasing their social networks. When you have episode after episode of bad mental health, you lose your social networks.”

Part of the way the festival does this is by normalising mental illness. By programming popular films such as Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share, it reminds us that mental well-being affects us all.

“People having mental health issues is a part of life,” says Eddie Harrison, director of the festival’s film strand. “The idea is to destigmatise that. We want it to be accessible and interesting, not highbrow, and make people aware of what mental health is.”

As festival director, Knifton says it’s the plurality of viewpoints that appeals to him. He is delighted to learn of Paterson’s argument, for example, not because he necessarily agrees with every word, but because it helps fuel debate in a field where public discussion is much needed. “We’re not trying to have a line,” he says. “We’re trying to create the platform to explore these questions and have these debates about, for example, the relationship between creativity and mental health. To reframe the discussion away from negatives and cruel things in the media and to have a discourse about positive possibilities is a good thing in itself.”

•  The Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival runs until 24 October. Full programme at www.mhfestival.com

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