A Beautiful Mind
Article originally published by the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7037314.stm
Stuart Baker-Brown, 43, a photographer and writer based in Dorset, was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1996. On World Mental Health Day, he delivers a unique personal insight into how his condition has nurtured his artistic expression.
In the past, schizophrenia has broken my life and taken away many of life's opportunities, such as work and the ability to interact with society and family or even myself.
The symptoms have been very disabling and destructive and have included psychosis (delusion and hallucinations) which is understood to be a disturbance of sensory perception and creates the inability to recognise reality from the unreal.
Other daily symptoms, such as depression, suicidal thoughts, the feeling of being controlled by outside forces, paranoia and fear of persecution, have made life very difficult to cope with.
There is also the stigma and discrimination attached to the condition, especially the perceived link to violence - less than 1% of those diagnosed are violent towards others.
I believe the condition is very misunderstood, especially the link with creativity.
The Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinsky; Nobel prize winner in economics, John Nash (A Beautiful Mind); novelist, poet and writer, Jack Kerouac; and musicians such as Peter Green, Syd Barrett and James Beck Gordon have all either experienced, or are believed to have experienced, schizophrenia in some form.
The condition has also been linked to the families of Tennessee Williams and Albert Einstein. Psychologists believe that schizophrenia personality is also associated to the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson and Isaac Newton.
Many people with schizophrenia are naturally creative and turn to the arts to release their inner thoughts and emotions and to express the meaning of their symptoms.
In my experience, schizophrenia is potentially a very creative tool which, as yet, has not been understood or recognised and is mistreated and so its powerful symptoms manifest as confusion and destruction.
If this potential creativity was nurtured and encouraged, I believe we could find something quite unique, rather than the devastation we recognise.
I am now in a very fortunate position and my creativity is beginning to be achieved. My symptoms have eased greatly, due to my own personal belief and will to survive and finding a medication, Seroquel, that truly works with me.
Like other artists, such as Philippa King and Aidan Shingler, who share my condition, I am harnessing my creative side and now using my symptoms to work for me rather than against. This works for me in both writing and other art forms.
The symptoms feed me the tools to become creative. I seem to be thinking all the time and the psychosis is not necessarily destructive. The experience of a hallucination can often be recalled in the creation of artwork or poetry, for example.
*About 1% of people develop Schizophrenia
*Genetics probably play a part
*10 to 15% of people with a close relation with schizophrenia develop it
*Treatments include psychological therapies or medication
Much of my writing captures my life with schizophrenia, my past symptoms and experiences. I turn these into short stories or my novel, The Man Who Can, which is a story based on my life and my journey from the spiralling tunnel of darkness towards the bright sky of light.
I also have many sketches of images that have appeared in my thoughts or have appeared in front of me when I have laid relaxing in my bed or even walking along the street.
The subjects of my photography are given added meaning, such as Mount Everest, which represents "Mount Schizophrenia" and my struggles in life.
Sometimes it feels that the symptoms of my condition are very naturally creative and often without any prompting my imagination comes alive. My mind, as others with the condition, is often very stimulated, as if on a more heightened awareness than people without it.
But the problem is expressing what I see or hear because strong cognitive difficulties - such as memory loss, disorganized thoughts, difficulty concentrating and completing tasks - impair my ability to enhance and capture my true creative potential.
Unfortunately psychiatry leans far more towards controlling schizophrenia, rather than showing understanding towards a patient's true needs and potential capabilities.
There needs to be far more emphasis on working with the symptoms. A far greater holistic approach needs to be adopted.
The link with creativity and schizophrenia has always been evident. Yet research into the understanding of these links has been very limited.
Thankfully, East Carolina University, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the National Institutes of Health in Britain are starting to research the links between schizophrenia and aspects of human creativity and cognition.
I personally believe that we are at the very beginning of having a true understanding of schizophrenia and its symptoms.
Let's hope that after so much misunderstanding, this new research will open much-needed and refreshing doors to the truth.
Here is a selection of Your Comments
I suffer from schizophrenia, have done most of my life I think, I'm a musician and happen to think a rather creative and passionate one at that. I would say there is definitely a link and that yes, while schizophrenia is mostly a curse, there's a small silver lining by way of a strong and unique creativity. Stuart is right in that the hardest thing to do is harness your creativity with what is effectively a social and mental handicap. Also, the NHS just wants to suppress you and your mind not explore it or find a way to only combat the bad bits, they just want you to 'calm down' which inhibits ALL your mental capacity.
Derek, St Albans
A wide range of psychiatric disorders have been 'linked' (often tenuously) to creativity. Kay Jamison has noted bi-polar depression in many writers (see 'Touched with Fire' her study of the subject). One thing one has to remember that the majority of artists and writers do not suffer from any such disorder and one would not wish to romanticise distressing mental illness too much. Of course a schizophrenic episode can stimulate extraordinary work in an otherwise mediocre artist. The C19 painter Louis Wain is a good example. His cute sentimental cat paintings became demonic and quite remarkable during a period in which he suffered from schizophrenia. When he recovered his paintings became banal once more.
It was very encouraging to read a positive report about schizophrenia. Having worked in the mental health system, in the UK and the US, for 25 years, I have certainly read enough negative press portraying people with schizophrenia as violent and dangerous. How nice to read something creative and person centred. Thank you!
Sue, New York
This story above is so true, I have a brother who is diagnosed with schizophrenia, and he releases his inner thoughts and stress by drawing, I've just noticed that recently. He also tends to lash out on members of the family and says things that he doesn't realise what has been said. His mind works like a five-year-old when he's 28, and he's had all the possible treatments you can ever have but nothing has changed.
Sumiya Achha, Lancashire
RD Laing has already attempted to harness the creativity of those with schizophrenia in the 1960s. Following the obsession with finding a biological basis for the illness, particularly this miraculous undiscovered gene, he was widely ridiculed and his methods branded as symptomatic of the whole hippy culture of that period.
James Campbell, Kirkcaldy
Very interesting article. My twin brother has schizophrenia so it is very close to the bone - so close that I am unable to help him for fear of becoming like him. There is definitely an artistic flair in all those with this condition and my brother is a lovely, gentle, charming person.
Angela V Frangos, London, UK
Thanks for presenting a positive note on schizophrenia on mental health day. Having worked in psychiatry for 6 years, I feel the greatest challenge we STILL face is stigma and articles like this go a long way in destigmatising it to some extent.
Senthil Subramanian, Bracknell, UK