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Why psychosis happens at a young age: the dark side of creativity!

According the the UK group Mind, “Schizophrenia seems to affect roughly the same number of men and women. Most people diagnosed with schizophrenia are aged between 18 and 35, with men tending to be diagnosed at a slightly younger age than women.”  Why?

The mainstream mental health system just claims that it is the nature of “illnesses” like “schizophrenia” to strike at a young age.  I haven’t heard much about how they think this works, but the standard consensus is that the cause is “the illness.”

A more likely explanation I think comes from examining some other phenomena that also tends to hit at a young age, that is, the phenomena of creative achievement, and involvement in crime.

It may seem odd to start with to consider a possible connection between creative achievement, which we associate with the most worthwhile aspects of humanity, and crime, with which we associate with the worst in humanity.  But recent studies, reported by Scott Barry Kaufman in his article The Dark Side of Creativity, show a pretty strong connection between creativity and a willingness to be dishonest or unethical in order to advance one’s own interests.  One study even showed that just offering suggestions to people that encouraged their creativity also made them more dishonest.

Another earlier article, “Why productivity fades with age:  The crime–genius connection” also addresses this connection between creativity and crime, and shows that both creativity and crime are much more common in younger people, and have to do with a developmental stage where young people take risks in order to find their place in the world.  In other words, its a normal process in our species, experienced more by some than others, which can come out in either a positive or a negative way.

This data also suggests that the peak is earlier for males, in regards to both crime and creativity.

So how does this apply to psychosis?  There is a lot of evidence that creativity and “mental disorders” such as psychosis are related:  see this article.  When creativity is turned toward crime society suffers, but it appears that creativity can also be mismanaged in a way that results in problems for the person themselves, and the result may be called “psychosis” or “schizophrenia.”   This happens mostly in young people not because of an “illness” but because it is young people who take the wildest risks in order to find their place in the world (and young people who have a prior history of trauma may take some of the wildest risks, or do so with really inadequate support.)

Those who favor the illness model might point out that while being creative or criminal often peaks and then fades, “mental disorders” often last a lifetime.  But this also could be understood by seeing the psychosis as result of experimentation in creating altered views of self and world, experiments that at least so far have led to more trouble than success.  Once a person has created such altered views, they may stay in them or just get further lost, if nothing happens to help them in a better direction, and if the “help” that is offered is in fact unhelpful, as it too often is.

As time goes on, people may organize themselves to attempt to suppress their own creativity, since it seems it was their original thinking that got them into trouble.  And the mental health system may operate along the same lines, giving drugs that suppress spontaneity and creativity, and convincing the person that they are “ill” so that the person does not put much faith in anything that emerges from their own mind.  But this disconnection from one’s creativity, while it seems to be reducing risk, may be cutting the person off from a resource that would be vital in recovery.

We need a mental health system that recognizes both sides of creativity, the good and the bad, and that can collaborate with people in finding a way to creatively overcome past mistakes rather than just suppress the kinds of original and creative thinking which in fact are vital to the person and in the long run, to society as a whole.


7 comments… add one
  • Quietly writing poetry by day…
    Scheming bank heists by night.

    Is that how it works?
    Sounds like a good argument for forced treatment….
    As if the TAC needs any more ammunition.

    Oops, almost forgot, there aren’t “sides”…
    Only good people who need to be “educated.”
    Give me a break!


    • Hi Duane,

      It sounds to me like you have misunderstood what I was trying to say, perhaps because I didn’t say it clearly enough.

      I wasn’t trying to say that everyone who is creative is also criminal, or that everyone who has a mental or emotional problem is bad, or anything like that. What I was trying to say is that just that I think there is one common source for a variety of kinds of “deviant” behavior, which includes both that society calls “good” or positive creativity, and that which society sees as “bad” such as crime and also the kinds of distressing mental states that get labeled “psychosis.”

      What follows from this I think is not a need for “forced treatment” but rather treatment that recognizes that the root of the problem is just a person trying to creatively respond to life’s problems, and maybe running into problems doing that in the short term. This sort of treatment would avoid force, and would avoid suppressing the person’s creativity, and would instead seek to collaborate with the person in coming up with ways of living that might be more successful. That would be very different than most of what happens in our mental health system today.

  • I understand what you’re saying.
    I think what I was trying to say is that the stereotypes are can be a slippery slope, especially with the track-record of the “helping professions.”

    I’m for non-drug approaches that offer real hope.
    And for the things that lead to self-empowerment.
    Self-empowerment being the absolute best form of empowerment!


  • I’m for self empowerment, too, and that’s why I loved this piece.

    What I took: creativity underlies artistry, criminal behavior, and madness; but criminal-making environments over the course of a very long time turn that creativity into criminality, just as crazy-making environments can, over time, turn creativity into madness. There is no cross-over, just a similar human potential gone awry; and, it’s never too late to inspire people to get their lives back on track.

    I don’t think that there would be any need to drug people, should this be true. If anything, it sounds to me like a perfect argument against medications; you wouldn’t drug creativity out of an artist, and if the heart of madness is creativity, why would drugging mad people be any different?

    I think that I loved this so much because, at least for me, I’ve always felt an underlying creativity behind my own psychosis, and I’ve also always felt such a resistance to anything criminal or anything that could be perceived as criminal (paranoid, yes), so both creativity and criminality have been underlying themes all my life… But that’s just my story. Still, I relate, and so I give thumbs up.

    • Hi Eli,

      I think you did catch the intended meaning of my post. The crux of the matter is finding a way to sort out when and how to be creative, so that it comes out in a good way instead of a way that messes things up. If a person can figure that out, one is much better off than when one is taking drugs that suppress independent thinking and responding. This is of course easier said than done, and there is risk in even trying, but taking reasonable risk in at least a gradual way is essential to recovery.

  • This explanation also seems to fit with the successful treatment, sometimes
    referred to as the Finland Model. That is, by keeping open lines of communication
    with the individual experiencing the schizophrenia like symptoms at the onset has been so successful in Northern Finland.

  • Couldn’t agree more. I’ve never gotten the concept of psych meds anyway. These claim to ‘help’ you by replacing your so-called disability with another one to repair your brain by destroying other parts of it. That really makes sense…??? In my opinion, we’re all equal human beings here, & one person doesn’t have the right to look at another, say they’re defective, & that they need to be changed in order to be accepted because the person they are isn’t good enough.