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Mental illness and creativity: singer songwriter Meg Hutchinson on bipolar disorder and medications

Posted Sep 03 2010 1:36pm

Many creative and gifted people have been diagnosed at some point in their lives with a mental illness.

A diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, for instance, can deeply affect our sense of identity and change the course of our life.

The decision to take medications to treat a mental illness may also have a long-range impact on our physical and emotional well-being.

Meg Hutchinson

In An Interview with Meg Hutchinson on Music and living with Bipolar Disorder , the folk music singer-songwriter talks about her own diagnosis, and her choice to take medication.

[T]hat feeling that you’re just – that nothing can stop you. Before I realized what I was dealing with, I just found those spells of kind of a lightning and electricity and creativity to be so intoxicating. And so that song ["The Living Side"] talks about how, even now, sometimes I miss the extremes of that ride, and yet there’s a lot in the song that says I promise to stay on the living side…

[Medication] has been…a core part of my treatment and something that’s been really challenging. I grew up in a very homeopathic, natural, organic kind of household. We didn’t medicate very much. We didn’t even get all of our vaccinations. These are hippie parents who had a really kind of holistic approach to our health and something I value a lot. So this is a real paradigm shift for me, to get to a place where I went, wow, I need help, and to realize that it was severe, that it was as dangerous as not treating cancer or diabetes or something.

It’s also been something that I’ve been very – you know, paid a lot of attention to to make sure that I wasn’t over-medicated, and to make sure that I made med changes with professional supervision, and that I did it slowly and carefully, and that before I made any changes I looked at my lifestyle and said, “What do I need to do before I’m ready for the next change here?”

And for me that’s been starting a meditation practice, changing my relationship with alcohol, you know, many things that all factor in to my health. So, yes, it’s still a very important part of treatment. It’s not the only part, and I think that’s something that we get pretty confused about in our country, that we just treat the symptom and we don’t look at the underlying causes or the person as a whole and figure out how can we adjust all of these other things towards their health.

But, yes, I feel grateful that there’s medication. I feel grateful that there are mood stabilizers on the market now that have fewer side effects and that we’ve come a long way in the last 30 years, a real long way, as far as treatment options. And I’m glad to be bipolar in this generation, you know. It’s a little bit easier I think.

You know I needed to be in the hospital when I was, but I also knew that the things that would heal me would come outside of that setting, and I needed to return to them. So if you have those things already, go back to them and use them as a way to heal yourself. And if you don’t have them prior to the breakdown, find friends that will help you get to those things that treat you on the deeper levels that I think we need to heal.

Clearly, Hutchinson has been thoughtful in making her treatment decisions. But in spite of an orientation toward natural health instead of drugs, she chose to take psychiatric medications, along with making other changes in her life.

In  Giftedness, sensitivity and psychiatric drugs: why do we take them and why do we quit? I take a look at some of the influences that might lead us to take drugs to cope with extreme states and the pressures of high sensitivity and giftedness.

What’s ‘normal’?

Hutchinson’s story is one of apparently severe distress, perhaps outside the range of ‘normal.’ But who decides what’s ‘normal’? Where does hypomania end and mania begin, and who decides what we should do to cope with or eliminate it?

In  Peter D. Kramer on normality and mental health , Kramer, author of   Listening to Prozac and  Freud: Inventor of the Modern Mind . notes the ever-diminishing concept of ‘normal.’

I have been thinking a good deal about normality lately. It’s a concern in the medical world. The complaint is that doctors are abusing [their] privilege, to define the normal.

Ordinary sadness, critics say, has been engulfed by depression. Boyishness stands in the shadow of attention deficits. Social phobia has engineered a hostile takeover of shyness.

Anatomy of an Epidemic

Hutchinson chose to make psychiatric medication a core part of her treatment.

Are psychiatric drugs really effective, and are patients being given the facts about their long-term effects so that they can make a truly informed decision?

Are we really living in a time of better treatment options for people with mental illness?

One author whose work has illuminated my own road to better mental health is journalist Robert Whitaker. In his Huffington Post article, A natomy Of An Epidemic’: Could Psychiatric Drugs Be Fuelling A Mental Illness Epidemic? , he takes a look at psychiatry’s track record:

The number of adults, ages 18 to 65, on the federal disability rolls due to mental illness jumped from 1.25 million in 1987 to four million in 2007. Roughly one in every 45 working-age adults is now on government disability due to mental illness.

This epidemic has now struck our nation’s children, too. The number of children who receive a federal payment because of a severe mental illness rose from 16,200 in 1987 to 561,569 in 2007, a 35-fold increase.

I wrote Anatomy of an Epidemic to investigate this epidemic, and this pursuit necessarily raises a very uncomfortable question. Although we, as a society, believe that psychiatric medications have “revolutionized” the treatment of mental illness, the disability numbers suggest a very different possibility. Could our drug-based paradigm of care, for some unforeseen reason, be fueling this epidemic?

This does not mean that antipsychotics don’t have a place in psychiatry’s toolbox. But it does mean that psychiatry’s use of these drugs needs to be rethought, and fortunately, a model of care pioneered by a Finnish group in western Lapland provides us with an example of the benefit that can come from doing so.

Twenty years ago, they began using antipsychotics in a selective, cautious manner, and today the long-term outcomes of their first-episode psychotic patients are astonishingly good. At the end of five years, 85% of their patients are either working or back in school, and only 20% are taking antipsychotics.

Life after medications

Like Hutchinson, when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a label I no longer find appropriate, I was grateful to be living today with so many drug options. Yet studies such as those discussed in CVD drives 25-year loss in life expectancy among the mentally ill reveal the health risks of medications, about which most mental health patients are never informed.

Years later, after a long process of withdrawal and recovery from the debilitating physical and emotional side-effects of psychiatric medications, I’ve come to see psychiatric drugs differently. My life after drugs is one I embrace, as I also embrace my high sensitivity and creativity.





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