“We might not feel like it, but we are very strong people”

“Get me off this roller coaster
Feel like an astronaut I’m not strapped in
Hanging on by my fingernails
I can see the bad man grin”

What is it about the link between mental illness and creativity? The world seems to divide people into categories in so many ways – children are told in school that they are creative or not creative. Everyone is familiar with the stereotype of the tortured artist genius such as Van Gogh. So very often we make a connection between madness and artistic output – we look at Van Gogh’s tortured skyscapes or read about how Gregor Samsa woke up one morning to find that he had turned into a cockroach (The Metamorphosis, by Kafka). So do we have to be mad to be creative? Does emotional, mental, or spiritual distress somehow give us licence to channel some sort of lightning into a song, poem, or painting?

In our workshops here at Other Ways Of Telling, we’ve been exploring all sorts of techniques that unblock our creativity. We’ve written songs and poems and we’re putting together a performance, which will be on in St Helens Central Library in mid March. The lyrics at the start of this article are from one of our songs, which describes the highs and lows of emotion that people often experience when going through a stressful period. Out of this collective sharing come some themes – we’re looking at how people move from what is sometimes described as a breakdown, to a break through, and then a break out. This break out might be from what’s expected of us by the outside world, or what we expect of ourselves. It might be refusing to accept a verdict that society has passed on us. It also means that we don’t have to be tortured geniuses to be singers, writers, artists or performers – in fact, getting back in touch with our creativity is a healing and integrative process, that for many people rewinds to the moment when we were told as children that we couldn’t draw or couldn’t sing, and undoes the harm that was done at that instant. Creativity is a fundamental human activity, within and available to everyone. To quote another alleged tortured genius, Sergei Rakmaninoff, “What other function can music have [than] to make us whole again?”.