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Do Mental Health Medications Make You Less Creative Like Kanye West Said?

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It’s long been a debate in the mental health world, between patients and their doctors, among psychiatrists and researchers — do mental health medications make you less creative? During a recent tweetstorm, Kanye West resurrected this debate when he tweeted on Dec. 15 about getting back in the groove after being off his medications for six months.

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“I’m loving the new music I’ve been working on,” West tweeted. “6 months off meds I can feel me again.”

The rapper continued by explaining that he doesn’t think he can make his usual music — critically acclaimed songs like “Runaway” or “Dark Fantasy” from his 2010 album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” for example — while under the influence of any substance, including his mental health meds.

West has a lot to say about many topics, but his tweets about creativity do highlight a common concern among those who take psychiatric medications. You may feel less creative, feel like things you used to know how to do get stuck just out of reach in your head and feel too disconnected from everything. In general, this is referred to as “emotional blunting.”

It’s a side effect that can happen with almost any mental health medication, including antipsychotics, anti-anxiety meds, antidepressants and mood stabilizers. One study found, for example, that 46 percent of people treated with antidepressants reported feeling “emotionally blunted.” While the sedative and emotional regulating effects of mental health meds can be helpful, when they go too far, it may feel like you can’t be as creative as before.

The exact relationship between creativity, mental illness and psychiatric medications is still largely inconclusive and controversial. This becomes more complex when you consider that, like in the case of mania and bipolar disorder, sometimes creativity is itself a symptom of mental illness.

“Individuals who experience mania can often experience wide expanses in their senses, memory and imagination,” Johnny Williamson, M.D., psychiatrist and medical director at Timberline Knolls, told The Mighty. “However those ‘creative’ experiences are actually consequent to the illness.”

This may sound discouraging, but there are many other factors at play in what exactly makes a person creative — it’s not just mental illness. A 2008 study examined how social factors affect creativity and found that those with lower levels of DHEAS, a hormone associated with emotional vulnerability, who experienced social rejection and felt more negative emotions as a result performed “better” on an artistic activity.

“It could be a mistake to assume that one’s creativity is limited to the impacts of mental illness,” Williamson added. “Ideally with effective treatment, we can maintain their natural creativity while effectively managing their symptoms of mental illness.”

It may be possible to maintain your sense of creativity while also getting treatment for your mental health by finding the right medication at the right dose. You might feel too dull or disconnected on one kind of medication, but when your doctor switches your meds or adjusts your dose, you might feel more creative than without any treatment at all.

Mighty contributor Jennifer Wilson experienced this, which she shared in her article, “The Myth of ‘Losing Your Edge’ to Medication.” She wrote:

We have bought the idea that medication will dull our sparkle, will erase our edge — that it will “flatten” us, level us out to the point of having no shine at all to our spirits, and we will live out our days in anonymity and uselessness. We think medication will cause our muses to flee. This is a lie.

Before I found the right medication for my bipolar diagnosis, I was scattered. I had written half of a novel and a few poems but nothing more. I was busy just trying to survive. In the year after I got on the proper medication, I finished three novels and self-published three volumes of poetry.

Finding the right medication will not dull you. It may focus your energies, making you more productive than relentless mania and depression ever could. It may spur you on to greater heights of creativity and progress.

It’s also important to keep in mind that mental illnesses can be life-threatening. Without treatment, those who live with a mental health condition have a higher risk of becoming homeless, being incarcerated or dying by suicide. An estimated 90 percent of those who die by suicide had an underlying mental health diagnosis.

“The risk of untreated mental illness can have severe consequences in many cases,” Williamson said. “There are numerous accounts of famous and not famous individuals forgoing mental health treatment and having dire consequences, up to and including death. Given that, the argument that treatment for mental illness should be avoided to maintain creativity is a perspective that has numerous and significant risks and likely opposes the best outcome for that individual.”

If you’re concerned about your creativity or how your mental health meds impact your ability to function and feel like yourself, you’re not alone. Studies have shown that people stop taking their psychiatric drugs because of mental side effects as often as physical side effects. Work with a doctor who values your concerns about creativity to find a solution that balances your mental health and medication side effects.

Mighty contributor Mary Sukala shared in her article, “When I Realized I Don’t Have to Be Manic to Be Artistic,” that this balance is possible. She wrote:

I believed I wasn’t a good artist well after the sickness faded; I was convinced I just got lucky with my bipolar high. But as time went on, I was adjusted to the right cocktail of meds and found the right therapist, and reached my version of normalcy. When I began getting back in touch with my artsy side, I realized I still have it in me, always have, even in my healthy periods. Mania might provide a surge of ideas and the laser focus and drive to make those ideas a tangible reality. It does not, however, provide innate talent or a deep-seated passion. I have been drawing ever since I could clutch a crayon in my little kid fist and scribble on a page.

“Ultimately, I believe that creativity is such an integral part of who I am that mental illness or not, I would always be this way,” Sukala concluded. “It’s just something that’s in my soul, and no amount of medication can change that.”

Originally published: December 21, 2018
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