Depression: Are Comedy and Creativity Risk Factors?

Depression: Are Comedy and Creativity Risk Factors?

The death through suicide of one of the world’s best comedians, Robin Williams, has yet again sparked an unending debate on the apparent link between avid creativity – for instance in comedy – and mental illness, especially depression. Many are asking if creativity could be a risk factor for the disease in light of Williams’ death. According to reports, Robin Williams killed himself following several years of deep depression.

The comedian’s wife later confirmed that he was also suffering from Parkinson’s disease, though in its early stages. This is a debilitating condition which affects the human nervous system, causing shakes, brain damage, mental illness and ultimately death.

Williams was a talented comedian and actor, and many of his movies resonate with fans the world over. Like most comedians, this man –once dubbed America’s funniest man – was incredibly witty and perceptive. He also possessed a razor-sharp mind. An example of how he connected with world audiences can be realized in one of his most famous quotes. He described politics thusly: “Politics: ‘Poli’ a Latin word meaning ‘many’; and ‘tics’ meaning ‘bloodsucking creatures.'”

Robin Williams made millions of people laugh across the globe, but most of these fans did not know that the comedian was also simultaneously struggling with his own personal darkness which eventually led to his taking his own life.

Other comics who have killed themselves include Ray Combs, Paul McCullough, Micke Dubois, Tony Hancock, Doodles Weaver, Freddie Prinze and Richard Jeni, just to mention but a few. Could comics be more prone to depression than the rest of humanity and is creativity a risk factor for the illness? If so, then why?

This question has sent scientists scratching their heads, and at the same time looking for more evidence on the apparent link between comedy and mental illness. According to comedian Susan Murray, “It doesn’t take a genius to work out that comedians are a little bit nuts.” She uttered these words in response to a scientific study that had suggested that comedians have some unusual psychological traits that can be linked to psychosis. The study – which was published in January – was conducted at the UK’s University of Oxford and scientifically looked into comics’ psychological traits.

According to the research, comedians have an abnormal personality profile which is contradictory. On one hand, they tend to be “introverted, depressive and schizoid.” On the other hand, they can also be “extroverted and manic.” This schism keeps them in a constant state of “up and down,” like being on a roller coaster that never stops.

In an interview in 1992, Williams attributed novelist Jerzy Kosiński’s recent suicide to a fear of losing his sharpness and creativity. At that time, Williams felt that he was capable of overcoming such a risk, but unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case.

Williams once described the profession of a stand-up comedian like himself as a brutal field. According to him, comedians burn out because their lifestyle of partying, alcoholism and drugs eventually takes its toll. A comedian flames out because the talent comes and goes. Suddenly they are hot, then somebody else becomes hotter, and this can make them feel bitter and disillusioned. The pressure to maintain themselves at the top becomes too much, and they become obsessed, losing their focus.

Just a few months before his suicide, Williams had admitted himself into Hazelden Foundation’s Addiction Treatment Center for professional treatment and advice for his alcoholism and drug abuse. Mara Buxbaum, Williams’s publicist, also commented that the talented actor was suffering from a severe bout of depression prior to his suicide. Could it be time the world looked more into mental health problems associated with comics, and is creativity a risk factor for the disease? Research is ongoing into this issue, and for those who suffer with depression, help cannot come soon enough.

By: Rebecca Savastio






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