The Arts and Suicide
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For years there has been pop culture speculation about mental illness and the artistic mind. Remembering the romantic association between artists and mental illness, I decided to take a look for some actual scientific correlation between the arts and suicide. I was startled by the results.
The British Office for National Statistics recently looked at suicide rates by occupation. Data collected showed that people who work in arts-related jobs are up to four times more likely to commit suicide. Male artists are more than twice as likely to commit suicide, and with female artists, the risk quadruples. This is different than the average population where women are more likely to attempt but males have a higher success rate, linked to the fact that men are more likely to use more violent methods like firearms. (In the mental health world a successful attempt results in death and a failed attempt results in life. 19 of 20 attempts result in continued life.)
Ruth Sutherland, CEO of Samaritans, a suicide prevention organization in the UK with a decades long history, said, "Some of today’s findings echo what we know about increased risk in those working in low-skilled and low-paid professions. This is not right, it’s not fair, and it has to change." People working in theatrical professions also have higher rates of alcohol and drug abuse, mania, anxiety disorders, and suicide attempts. (A. M. Ludwig, 1992) Stress from limited financial circumstances and that of the rejection of personal products, or in the case of performers at an audition, the rejection of their very selves, may contribute to the higher risk of suicide for creative professionals.
Though there hadn’t been much research into suicide and artistic professions until recently, there has been research into the artistic mind and mental illness. In 2012, a 40-year prospective was released by a group of Swedish psychological researchers, Mental illness, suicide and creativity. Their study found that the romantic correlation was not true. Creative professionals were not more likely to have a diagnosable mental illness. (The exception was for bipolar disorder but even then the number was relatively small. For a fascinating read on this matter, check out Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament by Kay Redfield Jamison) What they did find was that the siblings of patients with autism and the first-degree relatives of patients with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and anorexia were significantly overrepresented in creative professions.
So is there a genetic link to mental illness that is conducive to creativity and does that link make artistic people more susceptible to suicide? Another recent study found that those scoring high in schizotypy showed similar patterns of brain activity during creative thinking to those of the highly creative participants. Schizotypy is when a person shows traits of schizophrenia-like metaphorical or overelaborate thinking, eccentric behavior or appearance, and magical thinking or bizarre fantasies which are all nurtured in artistic communities. Writing in Flow author Susan K. Perry says "Positive schizotypy is associated with central features of ‘flow'-type experience, including a distinct shift in phenomenological experience, deep absorption, focus on present experience, and sense of pleasure."
So what do we do to make sure that the people we love and the people we share our days with don’t find themselves a part of this troubling statistic? At our annual member retreat in April, we heard a common theme of taking care of the people who work in our theatres. Previously the focus has been the theatre operation itself. There is an awareness that times are particularly troubling and if we want to produce quality theatre we have to provide our staff and artists a safe and healthy work environment.
I think kindness is a good place to start. I think that heading to our theatres or our offices each day and assuming that everyone is doing the best that they can is powerful. It is not easy, but try it for a day and see how much more empathetic and understanding you are. We must be gentle with each other and supportive. When you ask someone how they are, mean it. Show them care. In this uncertain time where every day it seems that LGBT-identifying folks, immigrants, women, and people of color are faced with more hate from their neighbors, leaders, and lawmakers, let us try to be aware of the struggle. Chances are that no one’s struggle is the same but if you stop and ask, everyone has a story that will break your heart. We need to show up for each other, now more than ever.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or suicide, you are not alone and neither are they. The Suicide Prevention Lifeline has a helpful list of do’s and don’ts on their website. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline recommend these 5 steps: ask, keep them safe, be there, help them connect, and follow up. Learn more about the 5 steps and how you can #Bethe1 to save a life here. If someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, take action. 50% of all suicides are performed with firearms. Remove any weapons and pills from your friend or coworker’s home.
If you are currently in crisis, please call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 immediately. Find a support group. You are not alone in this and meeting and sharing with others may be a literal step off the ledge. Here is a list of New Jersey support groups. Make a safety plan and if you feel yourself slipping into a dark place, use it. If you have a support person, share your safety plan with them. Take care of yourself to avoid a crisis again. Suicide Prevention Australia has a handy, easy to follow self-care checklist available to print or save.
If you are a survivor of suicide attempt it can feel completely isolating and alone. The Lifeline has an amazing site for survivors of attempt and their friends and family. Take five minutes to watch this Ted Talk on breaking the silence with JD Schramm and then get some words of advice from someone else who has traveled the journey back to life. My personal favorite is 100 Ways to Make it Through the Next 5 Minutes, because if you can make it through five minutes maybe you can make it to ten, or an hour, or long enough to make a connection with a support person