CW: mental illness, suicide, substance use
The conflation between an individual’s genius and their mental health problems, is a tale as old as time.
Often glorified and romanticized in the media, genius and madness are often considered to be two sides of the same coin, whereby madness, or more accurately, mental illness and mental instability are viewed as consequences of being highly creative and intelligent.
This concept, which is widely believed and perpetuated, bears extremely fatal repercussions and leads to the attitude of ignorance towards the mental health of highly creative people.
In some cases, this mentality leads to substance abuse and addictions, and also produces false representations of mental health issues, which instead of being treated, are viewed as products of being a genius.
Virginia Woolf, a world-renowned author and poet, suffered from depression throughout her life and it ultimately killed her. Vincent Van Gogh, Heath Ledger, Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and many other artists, creatives and geniuses, suffered from mental illnesses and lost their lives to it.
And yet, instead of portraying these incredible people as humans who genuinely needed help, support and therapy, the media portrayed and continues to portray them as geniuses who succumbed to their “madness,” further stigmatizing mental health and the very real supports these people needed.
This type of rhetoric creates the idea that extremely talented, creative people who lose their lives due to mental health issues have some sort of badge of honour, or as proof that these individuals are great.
Some of these individuals have lost their lives to substance addiction and that too has been shown as a consequence to their brilliance, rather than a serious problem.
This concept becomes even more problematic once we realize that it is barely backed up by science. Despite the numerous anecdotes and people who come to our minds when we think of creative geniuses who turned “mad”, research done on 1000 creative geniuses showed that only 4% of them exhibited any form of mental illness. Moreover, at the end of a 25 year study, American psychiatrist Albert Rothenberg concluded that there is no specific personality type associated with outstanding creativity.
There are multiple questions and concerns that this concept and its popularity brings to light. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, why is this concept so roaringly glorified by the media and why does it continue to be a popular subject to be portrayed? What is the attachment that we as an audience have towards watching somebody in pain? And most importantly what does it tell us about us as a society?
When our logical minds know that these geniuses were clearly in need of medical help and needed help, why do we still get drawn to media adaptations of romanticized mental illness? Why is substance abuse seen as a natural byproduct of creative genius?
According to Dr Stephen Mason, watching people suffer “is a vicarious thrill. It allows us to get so very close to humiliation, to danger, to abject terror and yet walk away clean. This provides a great sense of comfort and security, power and control.”
Even more so in the case of people who are considered geniuses, they are also seen as a rarity, doing something that most of us as audiences aren’t. By this logic, watching a genius in their struggles offers an out-of-reach experience that we cannot relate to.
And if we cannot relate to them, we feel like it is a normal consequence of their genius. If they are highly creative, they must be highly mentally unstable. It becomes an excuse for us to be apathetic towards them.
The media monetizes on our inability to relate to a genius in any way. The artist, the genius, the creative are separated from the human, and this dehumanization results in our apathy towards these highly valued people. The artist/genius/creative is put on a pedestal so high that we fail to see the human underneath. A major part of the human experience is connection through empathy and relatability, and with the loss of that, we fail to view an individual as a fellow human being.
Media portrayals such as biopics have only helped propagate the idea. The harm caused by these portrayals isn’t just limited to people who are considered intellectually and creatively brilliant.
For the regular audience suffering from mental health issues, constantly relating madness and genius can have extreme reverberations, in terms of forming the narrative that since they have some kind of mental health problem, they could be or must be highly creative/intelligent and they must allow it to go untreated to achieve their highest potential. It also normalizes the use of substances, without showing the actual truth of what the abuse of substances can do to human health and well being. The substance use and abuse too, is viewed as something justified.
I wonder how many lives we could have saved if instead of viewing people from the lens of what they do, we viewed them as humans who needed help. Creativity and intelligence should never be placed above the mental health and life of a human being.
Who knows? Maybe it was the expectations of being a genius that stopped these individuals from seeking help. We could’ve seen them produce much more brilliant work and continue with their lives, instead of having succumbed to mental illness.
It is of great importance for the media to humanize creatives, intellectuals and geniuses, and portray mental illness as something of concern that needs to be treated, rather than romanticized. The Mad Genius is nothing but an individual desperately seeking help and in order to provide them with that, we need to understand that ultimately even a genius is a human of flesh and blood, just like the rest of us.
Roshni is a self-proclaimed Comedy Queen who specializes in laughing at her own jokes. Her hobbies include making people smile, watching movies and analysing them, reading books, practicing yoga (occasionally), hogging on well-cooked biryani and scrolling through dog videos and memes on Instagram. Her love for writing stems from her love for art in general, which is fuelled by her background in theatre. Catch on her instagram at @roshni_rakshit daily, where she regularly shares her experience with movies and occasionally offends people with her political sense of humour.