To remove the stigma of mental illness, we need to accept how complex—and sometimes beautiful—it is

Harvesting the positives.
Harvesting the positives.
Image: AP Photo/Antonio Calanni
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The tension between order and disorder in the brain creates the ideal conditions for genius. This has been understood to some degree since the time of Plato, who spoke of “divine madness,” and Aristotle, who noted that creative people tended toward melancholia. And in contemporary times, we now know the link between this tension and genius is more than an observation.

Evidence shows a link between differently wired brains and particular strengths. The variation in individuals’ brains cause that person to suffer from factors such as anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, difficulty relating to others, or simply being distractible. When experienced to serious degrees, these symptoms can interfere with our lives and should be evaluated and treated. Yet our hyper-focus on the struggles of those living with mental-health complications—a population including nearly half of Americans within their lifetime—obfuscates the positive abilities these people possess.

Looking through history at some of the most iconic geniuses—Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Darwin, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Abraham Lincoln—many suffered from a mental illness. Yet the very mental illness they endured was also often part and parcel of the particular abilities they had.

Neuroscience can explain why mildly to moderately mentally ill people are more likely to be especially creative and have more creative output than those without a mental illness. This seems to be true in part due to an increased production of divergent thoughts (unusual solutions to problems) as well as disinhibited thoughts due to a “faulty” biological switch in a brain region called the default network, which regulates when to give attention to something or not.

This is of course not to say that people unencumbered with mental illness cannot be especially creative —or that mental illness would be in any way a desired quality—but it does seem to be that the wiring differences of these brains confer a greater likelihood of creativity. In fact, specific disabilities often seem to be likewise connected to specific abilities.

For example, distractibility is a common symptom of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is currently the most common mental-health diagnosis in school-aged children. In addition to having difficulty regulating when to pay attention, people with ADHD often struggle with impulsivity and have difficulty staying organized. This is because the affected neuronal pathways normally inhibit impulsivity and other executive functions related to organization.

But this “faulty switch” in terms of the ability to stay focused can also present itself as hyperfocus. In addition, that wavering attention and day-dreamy state is also a source of highly original thinking. This doesn’t just apply to artistic pursuits: CEOs of companies such as Ikea and Jetblue have ADHD. Their creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, high energy levels, and disinhibited manner could all be a positive result of their negative affliction.

Anxiety is another common diagnosis in both children and adults. Anxiety can be debilitating, causing daily worry that interferes with one’s ability to function. However those with anxiety are more likely than their non-anxious counterparts to be very diligent and are detail oriented. This is because their pathways related to scanning for signs of danger and planning for survival are on high overdrive and more exquisitely sensitive. They also tend to be more driven with an unusual ability to predict outcomes, likely because they are often scanning ahead into the future looking for concerns. A common trait of those with high anxiety is “hypervigilance,” which plays out both in work and emotionally: The result is the strength of having increased awareness of themes in work and the emotional states of those around them.

The list goes on for issues like depression, bipolar disorder, autism—even mildly psychotic thinking. Those with dyslexia have an increased ability to discern patterns, to see the bigger picture, and often have a heightened special-relations ability, which is the skill to mentally generate, rotate, and transform visual images. It is clear there are abilities directly connected to the very things we often consider disabilities.

The question then becomes: What can we do with this information? Today many people never seek treatment for their suffering due to stigma. But what if it was understood that your struggle also came with an ability that could lead to great achievement and success? This may make people more willing to seek treatment so they can begin to feel more mentally well and lead a happier life.

If parents, educators, those living with mental illness, and clinicians understood the need to not only seek out and have treatment for mental illness but also to lean in to the positive sides of their ailment, it would be easier to step out of the shadows and get help.